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Saturday, April 4, 2020

Mars comes to Western

Emily Lakdawalla, senior editor for The Planetary Society, discusses her passion for space and for future Mars missions, June 27, 2016. Lakdawalla was part of a panel of scientists and a former astronaut who answered questions from the audience about the previous three Mars missions and the challenges of one day sending humans out to the Red Planet. // Photo Courtesy of Kesia Lee
Emily Lakdawalla, senior editor for The Planetary Society, discusses her passion for space and for future Mars missions, June 27, 2016. Lakdawalla was part of a panel of scientists and a former astronaut who answered questions from the audience about the previous three Mars missions and the challenges of one day sending humans out to the Red Planet. // Photo Courtesy of Kesia Lee

“Your city has been invaded by Martians!” Dr. Jim Bell exclaimed to the eager audience at Mount Baker Theatre.  “There are Martians among your right now and some of them will be here on stage afterwards.”

Bell was referring to the team of about 30 NASA scientists and engineers from around the world who came to Bellingham for a semiannual team meeting. Each year they meet in person in a different location to discuss the Mars rover’s design and planning.

Dr. Melissa Rice, a Western assistant professor of planetary science, and team member of three of NASA’s rover missions, did a public presentation and panel at the Mount Baker Theatre Monday, June 27th to educate the public about the past, present and future of Mars exploration.

Nearly 1,000 people attended the event, which included a presentation by Dr. Jim Bell, a professor at Arizona State University, president of the Planetary Society, and lead scientist of the next generation camera system being sent on the next rover in 2020.  A panel and Q&A session followed this with present and veteran scientists.

The panel included: Emily Lakdawalla, senior editor and planetary evangelist for the Planetary Society, Dr. Justin Mak, imaging scientist and engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Captain Wendy Lawrence, retired astronaut and veteran of four NASA shuttle missions.

“I want kids to realize that if they work hard they can make their dream come true. If you’re willing to work hard, and not sell yourself short, you can go off and have an amazing career.”

Captain Wendy Lawrence

NASA is studying Mars so extensively because they have found evidence that liquid water may have flowed in ancient and possibly present mars in the subsurface. Potential water could mean the potential of life on the planet.

The rovers act as extensions of the scientists, since it is not safe for humans to travel there yet. They are built to survive in Mars’ harsh climate, maneuver the obstacles of its landscape and take photos of the rocks for scientists to study and look for more evidence of water.

The rovers have a variety of equipment to study the landscape. They carry cameras, spectrometers, arms to drill rock, antennas to communicate, computers, etc.  “They’re fully fledged spacecraft. They just happen to be driving on land,” Bell said.

Volunteers from WWU Women in Science and the Western chapter of Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science display Lego robots at their table in the foyer of the Mount Baker Theater, June 27, 2016. Many science groups and clubs from Western were involved in the Mars Invasion event. // Photo Courtesy of Kesia Lee
Volunteers from WWU Women in Science and the Western chapter of Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science display Lego robots at their table in the foyer of the Mount Baker Theater, June 27, 2016. Many science groups and clubs from Western were involved in the Mars Invasion event. // Photo Courtesy of Kesia Lee

It can potentially climb up hills, move down valleys, and do the kinds of things that humans would do, but the rover’s average speed is only 4 centimeters per second.

Building, testing, and launching a rover can take up to five years, and involving up to 6,000 people across the world.

Launching and landing it there safely is half the battle. Once it’s there it is crucial that they carefully plan when and where it moves. If it breaks there is no repair team that can go and fix it.

NASA has sent three mobile rovers to Mars in the past. Rover’s named Spirit, and Opportunity were sent over in 2003 and 2004.  Curiosity, Mars’ latest rover was launched in 2011.

Spirit got stuck in the sand and was retired in 2010, but Opportunity and Curiosity’s missions still continue today.

The photos that are taken by the rovers can be viewed by the public on the website: http://www.midnightplanets.com .

The rovers are moved almost daily, but the process itself takes a whole day’s work. It starts with the rover team members calling Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where the rovers are built and controlled. They are then put on a telecom line where all the scientists and engineers from around the world discuss the rover’s goals for the day, and long term.

Depending on the day, it can take 20-30 minutes for each command signal to reach the rover. They need to keep constant surveillance to make sure there’s no risk of it breaking.

Many, like Dr. Rice also have separate jobs. Rice said, “It’s tough because…when you teach a class at 11 A.M., that cuts right into that day.” She resolves this by blocking out her schedule at least one day a week just to work on the rover.

“Space requires everybody, not just rocket scientists. Everybody can play a role in this.”

Dr. Jim Bell, a professor at Arizona State University

The next rover will be called Mars 2020 and is scheduled to launch in the year 2020.

This instrument will be a near copy of Curiosity, but have more instruments, take more detailed pictures and be able to travel faster. It’s ultimate goal is to sample pieces of rock to eventually be sent back to Earth.

The new camera system, which is referred to as Mastcam-Z, is in the process of being designed. It will allegedly be able to take color pictures like the human eye would see but also have filters that allow the rover to see longer wavelengths that the human eye is sensitive to.

Jim Bell narrates “Postcards from Mars” a presentation which tells the behind the scenes stories of the Mars missions through photo and video, June 27, 2016. The presentation included photos of the rovers being built, video from NASA during the landing, and images sent back from the surface of Mars. // Photo Courtesy of Kesia Lee
Jim Bell narrates “Postcards from Mars” a presentation which tells the behind the scenes stories of the Mars missions through photo and video, June 27, 2016. The presentation included photos of the rovers being built, video from NASA during the landing, and images sent back from the surface of Mars. // Photo Courtesy of Kesia Lee

The ultimate goal is to eventually send humans to Mars to do the rover’s job.  However, there are few significant hurdles for engineers to be able to safely land a crew to the surface and be there for a long period of time.

Scientists are still unsure of the lasting effects that extensive space travel has on people. Astronauts are exposed to more radiation as they leave Earth’s protective atmosphere.

There are also records of astronauts suffering from muscle mass and bone loss, as well as developing vision problems during space travel. This is caused by lack of exercise, atmospheric pressure change, and higher fluid levels in their head due to zero gravity.

Despite the obstacles, Dr. Bell is still optimistic that humans will explore Mars. “It’s going to happen. I’m a firm believer in it. Probably in a decade and a half or two decades,” Bell said.

The audience listened to the NASA panelists eagerly as they answered their questions and encouraged them to reach for the stars.

“I want kids to realize that if they work hard they can make their dream come true. If you’re willing to work hard, and not sell yourself short, you can go off and have an amazing career,” Lawrence said.

“Space requires everybody, not just rocket scientists. Everybody can play a role in this,” Bell said.

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