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August 9, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Rover sparks Curiosity about Mars

TERRE HAUTE — The name “Curiosity” fits the latest mission to Mars.

Humans’ fascination with the red planet dates back to ancient astronomers. Yet, for most of us, our knowledge of the fourth rock from the sun can be summed up in an episode of “My Favorite Martian.”

NASA landed Curiosity — its $2.5-billion roving, robotic laboratory on wheels — on the surface of Mars early Monday, and that machine should answer many mysteries and quell misperceptions. It won’t find a wacky Uncle Martin, with two retractable antennae atop his Martian head. (Curiosity is looking for signs of life, but I’m predicting none of its discoveries will include 1960s TV characters.) The rover will provide new photographs and video, and sample Mars’ soil and atmosphere in ways beyond that of previous explorations.

The potential excites millions of earthlings, from backyard stargazers to expert astronomers.

Rick Ditteon falls in the latter category. His interest in Mars sparked as a kid, watching the sci-fi cult classic “Angry Red Planet,” but it didn’t stop there. Now director of the Oakley Observatory and professor of physics and optical engineering at Rose-Hulman, Ditteon worked as a young scientist on the NASA Viking probes that landed on Mars in 1976. As for the Curiosity mission, he’s an observer these days, just like you and me.

His, though, is a voice of experience, and Ditteon sees great potential in this NASA venture.

“This is a much bigger project,” he said, “and will collect a lot more data, a greater variety of data, and data we’ve never gotten before.”

The target of the Viking and Curiosity voyages — as well as others — remains the same.

Named after the Roman god of war, Mars lies about 230 million kilometers from the sun. Unlike Earth, it has two uneven-shaped moons (Phobos and Deimos), a reddish hue (from iron-oxide, or rust, on its surface), a thin atmosphere (95 percent carbon dioxide, and just a trace of oxygen), and the tallest mountain in the solar system (Olympus Mons, three times the height of Mount Everest).

Its similarities to Earth, though, fuel earthlings’ intrigue. A day on Mars lasts a darned-close 24 hours and 39 minutes. Temperatures range from highs of a mild 60 degrees to lows below freezing. (By contrast, Earth’s other next-door-neighbor, Venus, sports an average temp that would vaporize guys and gals — around 900 degrees Fahrenheit.) The tilt of Mars’ axis creates seasons. And, best of all, scientists have detected hints of water vapor.

“Mars is the planet most likely to harbor life,” Ditteon said.

Man has been piecing together the puzzle of Mars’ reality for centuries, but that quest took a large step forward with the Viking mission. At that time, Ditteon was trying to decide where to pursue a graduate degree. He chose UCLA over Cal Tech for one reason — UCLA’s faculty included an instructor, Hugh Kieffer, who also was in charge of collecting data from a device aboard the Viking landers. Ditteon built his doctoral thesis on that information, specifically the daily temperature variations on the Mars’ surface. By working under Kieffer, “I got access to all that data,” he said.

A dream come true, far beyond “Angry Red Planet.” “It was pretty cool,” Ditteon admitted.

The Viking landers and orbiters revealed the most extensive evidence of the presence of water on Mars.

“The whole program was a huge success,” Ditteon said.

Other Mars missions, before and after, resulted in a mix of successes and failures. Curiosity could not only exceed them all, but also rekindle Americans’ interest in space exploration. The project’s primary aspiration is to assess whether Mars’ atmosphere can support life. In addition to its pricetag, Curiosity involves an investment of time and risk. The trip covered 352 million miles and eight months, before the craft — full of the most high-tech cargo ever to leave Earth — entered Mars’ atmosphere on a freefall. NASA called it “seven minutes of terror.” With such scant atmospheric conditions, the car-sized, nuclear-powered, one-ton rover needed elaborate landing equipment, including a parachute, to slow its descent.

Just like the days of Apollo, NASA scientists breathlessly monitoring the touchdown burst into celebration at Curiosity’s safe landing, according to Associated Press reports.

“Whenever you try something new, there’s a concern it’s not going to work properly,” Ditteon said.

That’s why future steps toward grander missions require so much homework in advance. (Curiosity has been in the works for a decade.) Presidents Bush and Obama both set out visions for manned trips to Mars by the 2030s. Such a round trip would last about two years and eight months, Ditteon estimated. “That’s probably the biggest obstacle to people making that trip,” he said.

Unmanned missions appeal to Ditteon more. “I’d like to see more money put into robots [on Mars],” he said. “I think we can learn a lot from that.”

In the meantime, Curiosity will roll over Mars’ surface for two years or more, gathering and analyzing soil and rock samples on the spot, snapping photos, seeking water traces and searching for hints of life — past or present.

Down here on Earth, the rover’s movements aren’t visible in the nighttime sky. Still, we can see Mars itself with the naked eye, around 10 o’clock tonight, low in the western sky, forming a triangle with Saturn and the star Spica, Ditteon said. You won’t get the cheesy special effects of a B-movie or a ’60s sitcom, but the view’s much better.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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