Delaware researchers watch Mars mission’s final approach

NASA’s Mars rover, Curiosity, is scheduled to land on the Red Planet in the wee hours of the morning on Monday. Scientists at Delaware State University will help NASA decipher data the rover sends back to Earth.

As of Friday morning, NASA reported Curiosity’s position about 3.5 million miles away from Mars.  That means the rover has traveled nearly 350 million miles since leaving Earth on November 26, 2011.  It’s approaching Mars at a speed of about 13,000 miles per hour and will slow drastically before descending to the surface.

If all goes according to plan, the rover will begin beaming information about the surface of Mars shortly after arriving.  Part of that information will be deciphered by researchers at Delaware State University.  “We’re basically doing our last minute preparations for seeing that data,” says DSU Ph.D. candidate Alissa Mezzacapa.  “So we’re doing studies that are very specific to Mars that will help us interpret the data that we see on Mars.”

Dr. Nouradine Melikechi leads the research at Delaware State.  He says data from Mars will be studied at the Dover campus using a process called Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy or LIBS.  “Our role then is to actually analyze that data and figure out what elements are on the planet Mars, both at the surface and underneath the surface.”

According to NASA, the rover’s ChemCam will uses a “rock-zapping laser and a telescope” to turn rocks up to 23 feet away “into a glowing, ionized gas, called plasma. The instrument observes that spark with the telescope and analyzes the spectrum of light to identify the chemical elements in the target.”

The chance to work on a NASA project provides an incredible opportunity for students to see what’s possible, Melikechi said.  “I really want our students to actually believe in themselves and to be inspired by this and to be able to invent their own future.  That’s where innovation comes from.”  Mezzacappa agrees.  “I’m proud to be a part of this project here at Del. State,” she says.  “It’s kind of like a once in a lifetime thing I think.”   

The landing is currently scheduled for 1:30 a.m. on Monday.  NASA is hosting a watch-party in New York City’s Times Square.  Other events to celebrate the landing are scheduled around the country.  And of course, just like everybody these days, Curiosity Rover is on Twitter.  You can follow updates “from the Rover” at https://twitter.com/MarsCuriosity.

While traveling hundreds of millions of miles through space is quite an accomplishment, the trip’s most difficult leg starts as Curiosity approaches Mars.  The NASA video below demonstrates the engineering and technical skills required to land a functional rover that’s heavier than anything ever sent to Mars before.

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