Students’ Curiosity duly satisfied

Mars rover team lands at Rice for day of talks, Space Frontiers Lecture

For starters, here are three things you probably don’t know about the latest Mars rover, the car-sized rover that landed on the red planet in August:

One person’s signature flew with Curiosity: that of the schoolgirl who named it, Clara Ma.

For all its advanced science, the rover has less computer power than a typical smartphone.

The patterns on its wheels spell out “JPL” (for Jet Propulsion Laboratory) in Morse code.

If you were at the talk by two members of the rover team at Rice University’s Duncan Hall Nov. 1, you’d already know all that. Ravi Prakash, descent and landing engineer at NASA’s JPL in Pasadena, Calif., and Bobak Ferdowsi, the mission’s activity lead and flight director, were the final speakers this semester in the Space Frontiers Lecture Series sponsored by the Rice Space Institute (RSI), the Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology, the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership, the George R. Brown School of Engineering and the Wiess School of Natural Sciences.

The talk capped a full day at Rice that saw them participate in a lunchtime panel hosted by RSI executive director and astronaut Mike Massimino, taking in a robotics competition at the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen with robotics scientist James McLurkin and meeting with engineering leadership students.

The speakers relived the rover’s thrilling descent over what NASA billed as “Seven Minutes of Terror,” a reference to the complex landing that allowed the vehicle to touch down gently on its wheels. Their opening video montage mixed animation, actual footage of the landing and the cheers of crowds at JPL mission control and at NASA sites all over the country, which stayed open until the wee hours for the touchdown.

After that, it was down to details as they talked through the process of dropping a ton of technology onto another planet, and what they hope to achieve. “Every single part has a story,” Prakash said.

Other things those in the packed McMurtry Auditorium learned:

The capsule that brought Curiosity to Mars was bigger than an Apollo capsule that carried three astronauts to the moon.

Mars lander team

Bobak Ferdowsi, left, and Ravi Prakash of the Mars lander team talk with students at the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen on Nov. 1. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

There are six miles of cable inside the rover. The plastic coating on the cable – in fact, anything plastic on Curiosity – had to be baked in a vacuum to eliminate outgassing elements that could have smeared the optics. “When you smell that new-car smell, that’s actually outgassing. That’s the vinyl and leather and everything that has a small amount of material wafting away,” Ferdowsi said.

When Ferdowsi joined the Curiosity team, it had around 30 members. At the project’s peak, he said, about 7,000 were involved in every aspect of the mission. “It took 5,000 man years to get this done. That puts it in perspective,” he said.

Curiosity entered Mars’ atmosphere going 13,500 miles per hour. On the surface, the rover travels at the breakneck speed of 1.7 inches per second. “Why do we go that slow? Because it’s so far away,” Prakish said. “We can’t send triple-A to get a tow.”

Rocks that were kicked up onto the rover’s top deck surprised everyone on the team – almost. Engineers were wise enough to put dust covers over most of the sensitive equipment, which limited damage from landing to one of two weather instruments (and minor at that).

The filmmakers who created the film “Wall-E” visited the team to learn how rovers move.

A Lincoln penny rode with Curiosity as a tribute to the field geologists who would be getting so much data back. “Geologists often carry a unit of currency with them so they can take images and have a reference,” Ferdowsi said.

The rover’s plutonium power plant puts out about 120 watts of electricity a day, about enough to run a couple of light bulbs. The mission is scheduled for two years, but both scientists suspect Curiosity will still be on the job a decade from now.

Curiosity will never rust, as there are only trace amounts of oxygen on Mars.

Prakish helped engineer the risky landing that saw Curiosity first slowed by a parachute to 1,000 miles per hour and then brought to the surface by a rocket-powered module that gently lowered the rover on tethers before flying away to crash.

Ferdowsi, still sporting the trademark Mohawk that made him an instant Internet meme on the night of the landing, went from work on the transit team during the journey to Mars to his current duties as part of the roving team, which puts Curiosity through its day-to-day paces.

Both look forward to the day when humans are sent to Mars. “One of the things to consider in manned versus robotics: We’ve spent all of three months on Mars and accomplished, basically, what a geologist could accomplish before lunchtime,” Ferdowsi said.

Learn much more about Curiosity by watching the Rice lecture via the webcast to be posted soon by RSI.



About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.