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Tales From the Red Planet—Cosmic Tales by The Astronomy Club

The Astronomy Club, Manipal presented Tales from the Red Planet on the 21st of November. Seventh in the Cosmic Tales series, this talk was given by Jim Bell, a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University. He is a decorated scientist and speaker with years of experience working on NASA’s Mars rovers—Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity, and Perseverance. He has worked on remote sensing, imaging and spectroscopy to understand the geology of planets beyond our own. Pratyaksha Pathak, Athar Hussain and Aditya Iyer were on the Astronomy Club panel leading the event.

The presentation was an exciting peek into what goes on behind the scenes at NASA. It started with him explaining just how enigmatic a planet like Mars is. Due to its thin atmosphere, it cannot hold liquid water, yet it has proof of large ancient river networks, which implies the existence of Earth-like conditions, and possibly, life. The mission of the rovers sent there is to test this hypothesis and find evidence of life.

Image of sand dunes formed by high speed winds in the dusty Mars atmosphere.

Sand dunes formed by high speed winds in the dusty Mars atmosphere.

Perseverance was the first rover to carry a drone to Mars. The rover used 90% of the spare parts from Curiosity but was different as it did not simply drill into the surface to understand the geological properties of the planet. It used the core drilling technique, where the core extracted from the surface was processed by machinery on board to understand its composition and was then stored away to be collected by some future mission to bring it back to Earth.

Rovers and Luck

Bell explained how multiple mobility tests are performed on the rovers to check if they are fit to operate on the rugged landscapes on Mars. Another critical aspect that geologists must look into is the landing spot. They must consider factors such as altitude, wind speeds, and terrain. The Spirit rover was designed to last 90 sols (90 Mars days), but it was active for 2210 sols. The atmosphere on Mars is extremely windy and dusty. The dust gets onto the solar panels and blocks out the sun, cutting out power. However, the same wind that does this also carries the dust away, allowing missions to last longer.

A large part of scientific discovery stems from luck and observation. The Spirit rover’s wheels got stuck in the soil, and it dug up some of it in an attempt to get out. This revealed the sulphur-rich surface of Mars for the first time. Although not every mission can be this fortunate, there has always been something to learn from all of them.

Image of the Spirit lander comprising of airbags that brought the rover to the surface of Mars.

The Spirit lander comprising of airbags that brought the rover to the surface of Mars. 

An Enthusiastic Q&A Session

The question-answer session commenced after the end of the presentation. It was highly interactive, filled with movie references and hypothetical questions where the panellists answered some of the audience’s burning questions. They questioned how realistic the portrayal of life on Mars was in the movie “The Martian”. They also wanted to know Bell’s thoughts on the future of space exploration.

Bell stressed how ultimately, this is a team effort. He said that while studying engineering and sciences in the current day and age is essential for space exploration, those who pursue other fields have much to contribute to space science. Apart from traditional rocket science, many lesser-known skills such as sewing the landing parachutes are vital.

The meeting ended with a vote of thanks extended by The Astronomy Club’s Vice President Shrey Deshmukh. Professor Jim Bell’s passion for research and space exploration was contagious. It inspired many to pursue astronomy seriously. With the long-term future of humans on Earth uncertain, space is the final frontier left to explore.

Image Credits: The Astronomy Club

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