Research
03 Aug 2012

Open University researchers to study minerals on Mars

Two researchers from The Open University will take part in a mission to explore whether Mars was ever able to support life when the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) lands on the planet next week (6 August 2012).

Dr Susanne Schwenzer from The Open University’s Centre for Earth, Planetary, Space and Astronomical Research (CEPSAR), is part of a team which will study minerals formed when hot or cold water interacts with rocks on Mars.

“We already know that there is water on Mars,” said Susanne. “Now, we want to know the temperature of the water and whether it is clean and supportive of potential life - or if it is poisonous. We also want to know if Mars has niches where microbial life could have existed.”

Susanne joins a mission led by Dr John Bridges, Reader in Planetary Science at the University of Leicester.

Dr Stephen Lewis, Senior Lecturer in CEPSAR, has been working with the NASA team over the last five years to study the atmospheric conditions and weather above the landing site. He said: “Just like weather forecasts on Earth, we have to predict what is going to happen on Mars when the lander arrives, so it can enter the atmosphere, descend and land safely.”

The Mars Science Laboratory mission, landing NASA’s most advanced planetary rover called Curiosity, is a deploying the most powerful suite of instruments yet sent to the Red Planet.

The rover is scheduled to land at 6.31am UK time on Monday 6 August, beside a Martian mountain within Gale Crater called Mt. Sharp, to begin two years of unprecedented scientific detective work.

NASA’s website states ‘Curiosity will also carry the biggest, most advanced suite of instruments for scientific studies ever sent to the Martian surface. The rover will analyse a dozen or so samples scooped from the soil and extracted from rocks. The record of the planet's climate and geology is essentially "written in the rocks and soil"-in their formation, structure, and chemical composition. The rover's onboard laboratory will study rocks, soils, and the local geologic setting in order to decide if the conditions on Mars were able to support microbial life.’

Prior to the landing, the MSL spacecraft will decelerate significantly from a speed of about 13,200 miles per hour to enable the rover to achieve a landing speed of about 1.7 miles per hour.

The success of the landing is a critical milestone toward the goal of sending humans to Mars by 2030.

Notes to Editor:
1. For further information about the Open University’s research centre for physical and environmental sciences, visit: http://www3.open.ac.uk/study/research-degrees/earth_and_environmental_sciences.htm

2. Follow the team’s involvement in the mission in a day to day blog of the events leading up to, during and after the landing which will be posted by John Bridges at: http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/physics/research/src/res/planetary-science/planetary-science

3. To get a feeling for the engineering involved: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/video/index.cfm?id=1090

4. To find out more and get the news from the mission as it rolls along:
NASA Text & Images:
http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.cfm?release=2012-204

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