By Eric Swedlund
When Curiosity perfectly executed the astonishingly difficult series of maneuvers to land on Mars, University of Arizona scientists cheered another milestone in a long history of planetary exploration.
UA scientists have been involved in every NASA planetary mission and Curiosity is no different. This latest mission’s scientific goals were refined by UA discoveries and its landing site picked with the help of UA images.
“The history of the University of Arizona with planetary exploration is truly extraordinary and unique,” said Joaquin Ruiz, dean of the College of Science, in his opening remarks delivered to a crowd of 400 gathered to watch the landing via live NASA feed at the Michael J. Drake Building.
From the founding of Gerard P. Kuiper’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in 1960 to the research that UA geologist Bob Downs and graduate student Shaunna Morrison will conduct with Curiosity’s CheMin instrument analyzing mineralogy on Mars, the UA has built a reputation as the world’s leading academic center for space science. Ruiz said UA scientists have brought in more in federal research grants and contracts than all the university’s top peers added together.
In keeping with NASA tradition, the crowd ate peanuts while watching the white-knuckled JPL control room. Peter Smith, lead investigator of the 2008 Phoenix Lander mission, provided additional commentary as Curiosity ticked off its entry, descent and landing phases – the difficult “seven minutes of terror.” Applause followed each successful step through the thrilling final moments and touchdown brought the crowd to its feet.
Smith said Phoenix’s discovery of perchlorate in soil samples at Mars’ icy northern pole prompted a tantalizing reassessment of how scientists conceive of life on Mars. For more than three decades after the Viking missions, life had been considered impossible.
But with the UA’s HiRISE camera and NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers all contributing evidence to suggest a wet past for Mars, Smith says Curiosity’s exploration has potential for groundbreaking discovery.
“What’s really exciting about this mission is we can for the first time know if the ingredients for life exist on Mars,” Smith said. “My prediction over the next two years as this laboratory is searching for organics is we will finally measure organics at 10 parts per million or more.”
The morning after the landing, Alfred McEwen’s HiRISE team released a spectacular shot of Curiosity, captured mid-descent. HiRISE has returned more than 26,000 images – including one of Phoenix, also mid-descent – since the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter began circling the red planet in 2006. Still, those images have captured less than 2 percent of Mars’ surface. Detailed HiRISE images of the Martian surface have guided NASA’s selection of landing sites for both Phoenix and Curiosity.
The event drew members of the university’s Galileo Circle of science supporters, state lawmakers, U.S. Rep. Ron Barber and researchers.
“It’s extraordinary to see the community support. The crowd was exhilarated,” said UA President Ann Weaver Hart. “The faculty presented the excitement, the anticipation and the science very, very well.”