From the Field: Launch of Curiosity

by Gabrielle DeMarco on November 28, 2011

Earth may not be the only planet in the solar system to have supported life. Analyses of Mars reveal that during its history the Red Planet has had many of the right conditions in place to sustain microbial life and perhaps even more sophisticated organisms. But, it is a hard theory to prove when a trip to the Martian surface is a more-than eight-month journey through space and time.

On November 26, NASA made headlines around the globe as it launched the next big mission to Mars – an ultra-sophisticated rover called Curiosity. Curiosity is tasked with scouring Martian rocks and dusts for signs of water, organic materials, and other indicators of habitability. It will journey farther on the planet than any previous rover.  With 10 different scientific instruments on board for analysis and imaging, the rover is expected to provide exciting new information about our distant neighbor.

Our new Dean of Science, Laurie Leshin, is a member of the science team for Curiosity and was there for the heart-pounding launch. Dr. Leshin was kind enough to share some of her experiences from the launch here at The Approach. She will keep us updated periodically as the rovers makes the journey across our solar system.

I’m thrilled to be writing this from Cape Canaveral where I was privileged to watch the launch of the next Mars rover. Curiosity blasted off on the Saturday after Thanksgiving to begin its eight-and-a-half month journey to the Red Planet.

I have been working on MSL (NASA’s official mission name is the “Mars Science Laboratory” or MSL) for about 10 years dating back to the original “Science Definition Team.”  I am on the science team for two of Curiosity’s 10 instruments. Both are chemical analysis instruments that will allow us to understand the rock types and the volatile content of these rocks. We are especially excited about measuring water and carbon-bearing compounds – perhaps we will definitively detect organics for the first time on the surface of Mars!

Seeing a launch is an emotional experience – first you see the fire, and then a few seconds later (we watch from a safe distance of several miles away) the roar of the engines shakes you to your core.  It took over a million pounds of fuel to propel Curiosity out of Earth’s gravity well and set it on its trip to Mars.

Probably the best part of the launch was that I got to share it with my family.  Jon Morse, the Rensselaer Associate Vice President for Research for Physical Sciences and Engineering (and my husband) was there, as were my two stepsons, ages 8 and 12 – it was their first launch.  Overall, a great Thanksgiving for us!

Stay tuned for more updates on Curiosity. You can also follow updates on my Twitter feed (@RPISciDean) and get ready for landing on August 6 at 1 a.m. Rensselaer time!