It’s been six weeks since NASA dropped its $2 billion rover, Curiosity, on the surface of the Red Planet. After a thorough exam to make sure its instruments survived the journey, NASA’s scientists are preparing Curiosity for its long drive to Mount Sharp, a mountain scientists say will reveal Mars’ history and signs of former life. We discuss the rover’s potential, progress and perils with the mission’s lead scientist.

Guests

  • Michael Meyer Lead Scientist, NASA's Mars Exploration Program

Photo Gallery: Images From The Mars Mission

All photos courtesy NASA Mars Science Laboratory.

NASA Videos: Curiosity Lands On Mars

A behind the scenes look at the tension, anticipation and exhilaration experienced by scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., during the Curiosity rover’s harrowing descent through the Martian atmosphere, known as “Seven Minutes of Terror.”

From inside NASA Mission Control, footage of NASA landing a car-sized rover beside a Martian mountain.

Transcript

  • 13:27:49

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt was a nail-biting beginning for a scientific explorer. Just six weeks ago the world watched as NASA used a rocket, the parachutes, some ropes and spectacular scientific ingenuity to land the Curiosity rover on Mars. Now that the backslapping and congratulatory messages have ebbed the real work is beginning. But before this intrepid adventurer does some serious off-roading, NASA scientists have been doing what you might think of as a routine physical. They're testing the arms, the instruments and Curiosity's fire power. Oh, and did I mention the rover's brain transplant?

  • 13:28:24

    MR. KOJO NNAMDISo after a year of travel and the fiery descent is Curiosity in top form? What's next for this $2 billion adventurer and what do we hope to learn from the Red Planet? Joining us to discuss all of this is Michael Meyer. He is the lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program. He joins us from studios at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena. Michael Meyer, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:28:48

    MR. MICHAEL MEYEROh, it's my pleasure, Kojo.

  • 13:28:50

    NNAMDIBefore we talk about what's happening on a planet more than 100 million miles away I'd love to know how this rover landing has changed your life, life for you and your colleagues at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena?

  • 13:29:03

    MEYERWell, one thing, it's just a fantastic landing. If you look at the whole process it looks kind of like a Rube Goldberg device, but it is amazingly effective. Part of the reason for the invention of this capability was the ability to get a metric ton down to the surface of Mars. And with landing of Curiosity we proved that that's possible and actually a good way to do it. So one of the things that has changed is we now know that we can rely on this entry, descent and landing system for future missions.

  • 13:29:36

    NNAMDIWhat is an average day like for you, I guess, is what I was referring to. Do you have to sync up your life with what's going on on Mars?

  • 13:29:45

    MEYERWell, as you might imagine, with Mars being so far away, communication is a bit difficult. And so the way a day operates is the rover does its thing during the day. And then in the evening it talks to one of the Mars orbiters, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter or Mars Odyssey and it sends its daily activity back to earth. And that's when the science team and the engineering team kind of wake up, they get the data, see what happened that day, how the rover's doing, whether or not all of the tasks were done. And then they start planning what to do for the next day on Mars.

  • 13:30:22

    MEYERAnd so essentially there's a eight to twelve-hour process of getting that all together, building the engineering sequences and then basically just before the rover's morning the data is beamed back and the new instructions for the day's activity are sent to the rover. The difficult part of this for at least us humans is that the Mars day is 39 minutes longer than an earth day. And so because of that we have to rotate through the clock. And so each -- as each day progresses we get up 39 minutes later in the day and go to bed 39 minutes later. So -- and after a while you find yourself getting up in the middle of the night. It's kinda like being a teenager.

  • 13:31:08

    NNAMDIAll over again. So many of us have seen the seven minutes of terror video that followed the rover's landing. What were you doing during the rover's descent and what was going through your mind?

  • 13:31:20

    MEYERWell, it's kind of interesting. I was in the room right next to Mission Control, which I think most of the cameras were trained on, and it was almost surreal. And part of it was that 14 minutes before the actual landing -- or the landing that we could see, the rover actually landed. And so I knew that that last 14 minutes while we're waiting to get the news -- this is because of the time it takes for light to travel -- while we're waiting for the news I already know that whatever happened happened. And so it was kind of a, well, there's nothing for me to do other than get the news. It's like reading the morning paper the next day.

  • 13:32:06

    NNAMDIAfter.

  • 13:32:06

    MEYERSo, you know, besides being tremendously excited there's a little bit of a fatalism because you know that whatever's happened has already happened.

  • 13:32:16

    NNAMDIIt's already taken place. We're talking with Michael Meyer. He is the lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program, and taking your calls at 800-433-8850 as he provides us with a Curiosity rover update. Did you watch the coverage of the Mars rover landing? Did you think NASA would stick the landing? 800-433-8850. What kind of pictures do you want to see from Mars? You should know that you can go to our website kojoshow.org where we have videos and pictures of the rover's descent plus pictures that the rover has been beaming back to earth over the past few weeks to satisfy your curiosity. 800-433-8850.

  • 13:32:55

    NNAMDIJust minutes after the rover landed we started receiving fantastic pictures of the Martian landscape. Can we assume all of the rover's equipment survived the year-long journey and the descent, Michael Meyer?

  • 13:33:09

    MEYERSo one of the fantastic things is we've been going through, as you mentioned in your intro, kind of checkout, okay, did anything break during landing, how's everything going. All the instruments are performing fantastically. And we're not quite done yet with doing our first activities for some of the instruments. And so it seems that everything has made it through the process. There's only one minor glitch and that's on the wind sensors in which there are six sensors, three on two booms and essentially two of the sensors that had been knocked out probably from flying particles during the landing.

  • 13:33:46

    MEYERSo all in all it's just fantastic in terms of the capabilities that we put down on the surface of Mars. And what's wonderful is what we're doing is being sent -- given -- you know, being sent out to the public almost as soon as we get it.

  • 13:34:01

    NNAMDICan you walk us briefly through the check-up this rover is going through in its initial weeks on Mars?

  • 13:34:08

    MEYERWell, so it's a -- now it seems like so long ago, part of it is -- the first part is just making sure all the engineering things are working, that there aren't -- you didn't cause any shorts, you didn't break any wires. And one of the first activities that happens is raising the mast that basically has the binocular camera on the top of it. And so you go through with, okay, today we're going to check out this instrument. And so you turn the power on, you see if everything's okay and then you actually make some measurements.

  • 13:34:41

    MEYERAnd so for all of the instruments we powered them on, we've made sure that all the -- you know, the voltages are nominal and that kind of thing. We've done full-up instrumentation and getting data back from almost all the instruments. The only two that -- I think it's two -- two that we're waiting to actually do the first measurement are CheMin which is of the x-ray diffraction -- x-ray fluorescent instrument which does mineralogy. We've done an empty cell test but they haven’t had a sample yet.

  • 13:35:15

    MEYERAnd then the other is, in fact, the SAM, which is Sample Analysis of Mars. It has done rest analyses of the atmosphere but it hasn't had a sample yet either. So sort of the last thing that we had to do is to make sure we know how to operate the arm properly without banging it into things, and take a soil sample and feed that into our analytical laboratory. So the two analytical instruments that I just mentioned are still waiting for their first solid sample.

  • 13:35:44

    NNAMDIAnd you did a four-day software upgrade which has been described as kind of like a brain transplant, correct?

  • 13:35:50

    MEYEROh yeah, I mean, you replace the whole operating system and they kind of did it in an interesting way. And since there's two sides of the brain on the rover you can upload one side and make sure everything works, you know. And if it doesn't quite work you can always fall back to the other side. Then once you are confident that your transplant has worked then you can have the operating system on both sides. And that was particularly important because most of the upgrades in how to operate the instruments and what we're planning to do in terms of long rover traverses and that sort of thing, all of that we're in the new software that we're -- that was uploaded.

  • 13:36:31

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Kim in Washington, D.C. with, I think, a shared sentiment. Kim, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:36:40

    KIMHi. First a comment then a question. My comment is I just wanted to congratulate your guest on the landing on Mars. It was so exciting. And I have to say, I work in the space program, on the space shuttle, as well as the Hubble space telescope mission support and the reaction of the mission controllers when you guys landed on Mars was really exciting. And I want to convey that most Americans -- I think most of us feel very excited still about space programs. We're excited and glad that the space program is continuing by landing on Mars and that it was very -- you know, we all got to see it.

  • 13:37:08

    KIMAnd because even when the space shuttle was flown the last time, before it went over to Dulles, there was huge crowds out. I think that the next day, it was filled...

  • 13:37:17

    NNAMDIThat's right.

  • 13:37:18

    KIM...the ongoing excited, highly interested crowd. The American I think were still really highly interested as a part of the space program. And I just also wanted to ask the question, what was the -- can you tell us more about the type of landing system that is unique to get, you know, a ton of payload onto the surface?

  • 13:37:38

    NNAMDIThe landing system that's unique to get a ton of payload onto that surface.

  • 13:37:43

    MEYERWell, probably the easiest thing to do is look at some of the images that are on the web to understand what I might be talking about. Because trying to describe it without any pictures would be pretty difficult. But the real essence of it is, is that the rover was -- the retrorockets that suspended everything above the surface of Mars were on top of the rover, not underneath it. And what that did was allow the rover to be lowered on a bridle down to the surface. And so the rover actually landed on its wheels as opposed to a platform with legs or balloons and that kind of thing.

  • 13:38:19

    MEYERAnd what that did, it saved about 300 kilograms of stuff that you need that if you land on top of the rockets how do you get off that platform onto the surface of Mars. So that was the real innovation that happened in this. I'd like to mention one thing that, you know, Kim brought up. And that is what I really love about this mission and NASA in general is its desire to get the people involved in this.

  • 13:38:44

    MEYERWe want the public to know what we're doing and to get excited about what we're doing because we want the next generation to truly believe that science and engineering is exciting and that there's a future in it. And that they'll spend a little more time doing their homework to become better scientists and better engineers.

  • 13:39:02

    NNAMDIKim, thank you very much for your call. Here's Dan in Arlington, Va. Dan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:39:09

    DANYes, I enjoyed watching the TV coverage of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's control room during Curiosity's landing, yet I did not see any African Americans in that control room other than NASA's director and a woman who she seemed to be his assistant. Does JPL have a huge lack of African American technical people? And I'm asking this question because a previous WAMU program noted that NASA originated in Jim Crow southern states like Alabama, Florida and Texas. I'll take your answer off the air.

  • 13:39:42

    NNAMDIThere certainly seemed to be a lot of age diversity there, Michael Meyer, but our caller specifically wants to know about racial diversity in African Americans.

  • 13:39:51

    MEYERWell, it's certainly something that we want to improve. There's been a real seat change in NASA itself. I know that over -- I've been involved with NASA for a little over 15 years and I've seen a real change in terms of the younger generation come in, being much more diverse and reflective of the population in America in general. And so that's something that we're striving toward and we hope that the next generation is excited and wants to learn science and engineering and be contributed to this because our doors are open.

  • 13:40:24

    NNAMDISocial media sites have been full of images from the Rover, including some fakes like the picture the Rover supposedly took of Earth from the Martian surface, but that I guess -- that begs the question, besides scientific work, are you planning on doing some sightseeing photography with the Rover?

  • 13:40:40

    MEYERWell, we're lucky. We have a coincidence in that as we look around and explore this surface, it's also spectacular and it serves two purposes. It's just, you know, visual candy at the same time we're learning something about the surface...

  • 13:40:57

    NNAMDISure is.

  • 13:40:57

    MEYER...and trying to understand processes that are going on.

  • 13:41:01

    NNAMDIVisual candy indeed it is. We've got to take a short break. If you have already called, stay on the line, we will get to your calls. The number is 800-433-8850. What kind of pictures do you want to see from Mars? Do you think humans will ever be able to explore Mars in person? Share your thoughts. 800-433-8850. Send us a tweet @kojoshow, email to kojo@wamu.org, or you can go to our website kojoshow.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:43:28

    NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Michael Meyer. He joins us from studios at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena. He is the lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. What kind of pictures do you want to see from Mars? Michael Meyer, Mount Sharp, Curiosity's eventual destination, is only about five miles away, but the Rover could take up to a year to get there. Why will it take so long?

  • 13:43:57

    MEYERWell, there's a couple of reasons, Kojo. One is we're taking this slow. We want to not break anything in a rush to get to a particular place, but it is one of those happy circumstances where where we landed we are within about 400 meters of three different geological units. This sounds kind of dull, but the important part is, is that one of these units is in an area that we had identified from orbit as potentially being a place where water has cemented together some rock, and might in fact represent what could have been a habitable environment for microbes once upon a time.

  • 13:44:38

    MEYERAnd so, we're within 400 meters of having an area where there's conjunction of three different geological units, so three different time frames to explore. So we're going to do a little divert first, and go there and explore what we're calling Glenelg as the, you know, as the site, explore that for a while before we head to Mount Sharp. The other reason why it takes a while is roving is not like a dune buggy across a surface. It is a -- nobody's there to drive it. It's dictated from here for part of the traverse, and then the Rover itself has to look for hazards, decide what's the safe path going a little bit further.

  • 13:45:21

    MEYERSo the actual progress on each day is not nearly as much as you might expect, you know, on the order of, you know, so far we've been doing great and going 30 meters each day. The other aspect is, is going to Mount Sharp, you just can't head directly there, because there are some sand dunes in the way. We don't want to get stuck. So we're going to go along Mount Sharp for a while before we actually get below the sand dunes and then sort of head up a ravine that we've already identified as a way to start traversing going up the Mount Sharp.

  • 13:45:58

    NNAMDIBack to the telephones. Here is Roger in Washington DC. Roger, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:46:04

    ROGERHey, I was curious, how do you control the Rover, and how does the transmissions work from such a far, you know, distant place? How does that transfer back and forth?

  • 13:46:18

    NNAMDIRoger wants to know how we got all those pictures and videos back here that quickly.

  • 13:46:23

    MEYERYeah. The -- no matter how tempting, trying to joy stick the Rover would be a total disaster just because of the huge time delay between the signal that the send and receive by the Rover. So what is done is we use images surrounding the Rover taken with its multiple cameras, and the Rover drivers can plot out what would be a safe pathway for the first 30 meters or so. And so they could do that and basically say, Rover go ahead by three meters, turn ten degrees to the right, go another 20 meters, and then finish the drive by going seven meters straight ahead.

  • 13:47:08

    MEYERBut the Rover itself actually has an auto navigation. So it has the capability of if you want to go further than what you could see responsibly with your images in terms of whether or not there are hazards, you could tell the Rover to go here's a spot off on the horizon that we want you to get to. Please go there. And the Rover will head out and stop every ten meters or so -- stop, do a panorama, see if there's any hazards in the way, and then plot out a path it thinks is the safest way to go and then go further keeping in mind the eventual place that it wants to end up.

  • 13:47:49

    NNAMDIRoger, thank you very much for your call. Michael, how has NASA prepared the Curiosity Rover for hazards like sand traps that stopped the Spirit Rover?

  • 13:48:01

    MEYERSo one of the great things with having the Mars exploration Rover Spirit an opportunity that last such a long time, and in fact the opportunity is still going, and fanning fantastic results, is that we've learned a lot on how to drive on the surface of Mars. So this rocker-bogie system on Curiosity can handle large rocks up to 60 centimeters high, you know, a little over two feet high, so that's a great thing in terms of just able to go across surfaces.

  • 13:48:32

    MEYERThe other is that its footprint, although it is about the same pounds per square inch as Spirit and Opportunity were, because it's a much bigger wheel, it's able to handle softer material easier. It won't sink as much because as it sinks there's more surface area that gets, you know, pressing on the surface of the ground. So because of that, it should be able to handle material that the Mars Exploration Rovers have been trapped in. And then the other part it knowing to avoid certain areas because you're not quite sure how soft the material is and whether or not it is a sand trap.

  • 13:49:18

    NNAMDIOn to Esa in Centerville, Va. Esa, you're on the air. Your turn.

  • 13:49:24

    ESAHello. Good afternoon, gentlemen.

  • 13:49:26

    NNAMDIGood afternoon.

  • 13:49:26

    ESAI had a quick question related to, I forget the name. There's two moons that revolve around Mars, but I forget the name of one of the moons that we found in (word?) . There's like a huge (word?) That's right on the lunar surface, and I'm wondering is that any -- is that of any interest to anybody? Are we looking for any kind of, you know, previous, you know, life forms or any kind of like life or any kind of maybe organized civilization out there? I mean, is that what we're kind of looking for also? So I'll take my answer off the air.

  • 13:50:07

    NNAMDIMichael Meyer?

  • 13:50:09

    MEYERWell, I must have missed that press release about finding (word?) on one of the moons. The two moons of Mars are Phobos and Deimos, and all the imaging that has been done has been done from orbiters. We have taken pictures of Phobos and Deimos in fact just recently, and -- but they look like smaller moons than our moon, from the surface of Mars. And so if there was any structure on either of those moons, Curiosity wouldn't see them. The only hope would be from our orbiters, and the close-up images that I've seen of both of those moons, don't show any structures like that.

  • 13:50:51

    NNAMDIThere -- the Rover is fascinating, this one, because it's a rolling nuclear-powered chemistry lab that does its own scientific analysis. Can you take it through how it does that?

  • 13:51:04

    MEYERSo yeah. You point out correctly, Kojo, that we are carrying an analytical laboratory. There are two instruments on board. One is a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer with a tunable laser system. Well even the name makes it sounds like it something that would fill up a whole laboratory, and in general most laboratories that have this instrumentation do fill up the whole laboratory, and the amazing thing is to be able to compact this into something about the size of a microwave.

  • 13:51:34

    MEYERAnd what this instrument does is it can take a sample, heat it up, and break it down. So it's sort of like when you put something in the oven, when it's starting to get done, you can smell the cake being ready. So this instrument can smell what's coming off, what the breakdown products are, and from that, tell what the weight is, tell you exactly what the constituents are, and then reconstruct what the material was that was put into the sample to start with.

  • 13:52:03

    MEYERAnd so this is a great thing in terms of just understanding the chemistry of the system on Mars, what's in the rocks, what's in the soil, but also what's new that hasn't been done in quite some time is actually the ability to measure organic compounds...

  • 13:52:17

    NNAMDIExactly right.

  • 13:52:17

    MEYER...which as you might imagine could be critical to understanding whether or not life could have ever supported life. I mean, Mars could have ever supported life.

  • 13:52:26

    NNAMDIIf Curiosity were indeed to find organic material, what would that mean? Would it put us in a position to definitely or definitively say that life once existed on Mars no matter how small?

  • 13:52:39

    MEYERWell, finding organic material on Mars in some ways is expected, because you have organic material falling on it from space. There's organic material in meteorites. So the problem is because the surface of Mars is a highly oxidizing environment, whatever compounds are there are few and far between. So it may be difficult to find organic compounds on Mars. Okay. That being said, finding organics or Mars is important, because that means you've found a place where they could be preserved and so you're on the right track in terms of understanding what organics are there, and once you know that, then you have some hope of determining whether or not those organics ever came from a physical chemical system from space or actually from life.

  • 13:53:29

    MEYERAnd so that would be the, you know, next big step up in terms of what analysts -- what we need to analyze, what we need to investigate, and it's not a simple problem, but certainly it provides a lot of hope that we could explain the biological history of Mars if there was one.

  • 13:53:50

    NNAMDIOne of Curiosity's, well, coolest features is something called ChemCam, which is apparently basically a laser that vaporizes terrain on its path. How does ChemCam work and what kind of data do you want to collect from it?

  • 13:54:05

    MEYERSo ChemCam is a new type of planetary instrument, and it's actually a laser-induced breakdown spectrometer. And so you're right. It fires a laser and what it does, it vaporizes a skin of the rock that it's aimed at, or just a few soil particles that it's aimed at, and that plasma that is generated has such a high energy that as the atoms collapse back into their original configuration, release energy in the form of light. And so there's a telescope that's part of this ChemCam that has a spectrometer hooked up to it and just looks at that plasma and sees what light comes off as it loses its energy.

  • 13:54:52

    MEYERAnd the light that comes off the wavelengths are specific to elements that are in that plasma. And so what it does is by (word?) it, creating that plasma, you can tell what elements are in the rock that you just shot.

  • 13:55:09

    NNAMDIThere were three main destination points considered for Curiosity to explore. Why is Mount Sharp such an interesting target for scientists?

  • 13:55:20

    MEYERWell, one of the things that we had a huge activity by the science community over five years in terms of looking at potential landing sites, and we came up with the final four, all of which were very enticing. They all exhibited evidence of having interacted with water. They had properties, they had minerals that we're particularly interested in. Mount Sharp is a three-mile-high mountain, and the bottom half of it, you can see layer after layer after layer.

  • 13:55:50

    MEYEREach of those layers is kind of like if you took a history book of Mars and laid it on its face, and looked at the pages, each of those pages would be a layer describing the history of Mars when that layer was formed. And so Mount Sharp has the potential of being a huge time sequence of Mars as it went from ancient to modern. It's -- the analogy is the Grand Canyon. Grand Canyon is about 1.7 miles high, and it has two billion years of the history of the American continent.

  • 13:56:24

    MEYERAnd in the Grand Canyon as you walk up sections, you can determine what America was like at those particular periods of time, and we're hoping that Mount Sharp will have a similar revelation for Mars history.

  • 13:56:36

    NNAMDISpeaking of hope, what's your greatest hope for this mission, Michael?

  • 13:56:41

    MEYERWell, the first greatest hope has already been fulfilled, and that was for it to land safely and be able to do its science, and so it's doing that now. It is one of those things -- there's two major things that I'm looking forward to in this mission. The other analytical instrument that I didn't describe is an X-Ray Diffraction/X-Ray Fluorescence Instrument which actually gives you mineralogy. So one of the things that this Rover is going to do is tell you what minerals really are on the surface of Mars, and this is going to be a huge key to our understanding of Mars, not only just here in Gale Crater, but cross the whole planet.

  • 13:57:19

    MEYERSo that's going to be like the bread and butter of the mission. That is really going to be a great data set for future understanding of Mars.

  • 13:57:26

    NNAMDII'm afraid we're almost out of time, but -- go ahead please.

  • 13:57:29

    MEYERAnd the last one is, of course, the ability to measure organics, finding organics so we can start getting onto that whole line of investigation and trying to figure out the biological history of Mars.

  • 13:57:42

    NNAMDIAnd you talked about appealing to a younger generation. We got an email from Cody who said "Because the flight engineer had a Mohawk, my army supervisor now lets me wear one too. If there was anything about the landing the Internet storm around the Mohawk brought NASA back to everyone's lips." The Mohawk guy Bobak Ferdowsi, young and tattooed with a Mohawk, definitely appealing to a different generation.

  • 13:58:03

    NNAMDIMichael Meyer, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:58:06

    MEYERWell, thank you so much, Kojo.

  • 13:58:08

    NNAMDIMichael Meyer is the lead scientist for NASA's Mars exploration program. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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