‘Curiosity’ rover makes spectacular landing on Mars

After “Mars Curiosity,” a space probe sponsored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), successfully landed on Mars Aug. 5, UC Davis researchers continued to work.

The 567-million-kilometer journey marked the 12th successful NASA Mars mission out of 16 attempted since 1964.

Dawn Sumner, UC Davis associate professor in geology, is a member of the Mars Exploration Program Advisory Group, a group of NASA scientists who help determine the goals of NASA’s Mars projects.

“We have to make decisions every day as to what the rover is going to do,” Sumner said.
For more than eight years, the US has had a continual robotic presence on the Martian surface.

Another Mars rover, named “Sojourner,” landed on Mars in 1997 and was the first probe to use the technique of landing a rover by allowing it to bounce on the surface using an air bag.

“The [Curiosity] rover is so big that they couldn’t use the same air bag landing system,” Sumner said.

One of Sumner’s students, Amy Williams, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in geology, is also involved with the Mars Curiosity mission. She’s a member of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) science team and will help choose science targets on the ground to answer questions.

Williams has had an interest in space exploration for many years.

“I’ve always been kind of a sci-fi nerd, and enjoyed the thought of searching for life in the universe,” Williams said. “When the chance to work with Dawn and MSL came around, it seemed like the perfect fit — an opportunity to become an astrobiologist.”

Williams is currently working with Athena Phan, a UC Davis undergraduate and member of Sumner’s team.

“I’m doing an analogous research project [on Earth] because the exploration for evidence of life on Mars begins with comprehending how life is imprinted on Earth,” Phan said.

The Mars Curiosity rover could be functional for several years and NASA scientists will be working to obtain funding to continue the project into the future as long as is desired.

BRIAN RILEY can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

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