Indian Space Station
Ashwin Vasavada, Deputy Project Scientist - NASA
Published on 25 August 2011
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"Curiosity, is to assess whether Mars was ever a habitable planet, that is, capable of supporting microbial life"
- Ashwin Vasavada
Indian-American Ashvin Vasavada is the deputy project scientist for Nasa’s Mars Science Laboratory which is currently slated for lift off on November 25,2011 from Cape Canaveral. In this exclusive interview to SRINIVAS LAXMAN he talks about the mission.
" In the last decade, planetary exploration has become truly global. As a second generation Indian-American, I'm happy that India has had its share of success. While competition is useful in its own ways, I believe that the future will bring collaborations between many space-faring nations simply because we've done many of the easy things, and the difficult things will require working together. Mars exploration is one of those difficult things, especially future goals of returning samples to Earth or sending humans to Mars.’’ - Vasavada.
What is the exact type of science which MSL will focussing on ?
The goal of the Mars Science Laboratory and its rover, Curiosity, is to assess whether Mars was ever a habitable planet, that is, capable of supporting microbial life. In order to do this, we explore a local region on Mars that has evidence of a past history of liquid water and that appears to have preserved a record of the geology and environmental history for us to study today.
The landing site at Gale Crater contains a 5-km mound of stratified rock, with variations in mineralogy and geology as one progresses upward from the base of the mound. By analogy with stratified rock formations on Earth, such as the Grand Canyon, we hope to find a record of changing environmental conditions over a period of Martian history.
How will it be different from the previous missions---Spirit, Opportunity and Phoenix ?
MSL is a quantum leap in the robotic exploration of Mars. The car-sized Curiosity rover carries a six-foot robotic arm with a jackhammer drill at the end of it. Rock powder acquired by the drill is shaken through a sieve and then delivered to two analytical laboratory instruments located within the rover that precisely determine its chemical, mineralogical, and isotopic composition.
In addition to sampling rocks for the first time, MSL benefits from a new landing system that delivers the rover to within 10 km of a chosen target. We could not place the rover within driving distance of the Gale Crater mountain without this new system.
Mars Curiosity Takes First Baby Steps
Could you name some of the important instruments which will fly on MSL?
The Sample Analysis at Mars suite of instruments uses gas chromatography, mass spectrometry, and tunable laser spectroscopy to measure the chemical and isotopic composition of rocks, soils, and atmosphere, including any organic compounds. The CheMin instrument bring an X-ray diffratometer to the surface of Mars for the first time, allowing scientists to uniquely determine the mineralogy of rocks and soils.
Another unique instrument is ChemCam, which uses a focused laser beam to vaporize bits of rock and soil. A telescopic spectrometer observes the sparks of plasma and infers chemical composition from up to 20 feet away. We can use ChemCam to survey our surroundings and choose which rocks or soils to deliver to SAM and CheMin.