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NAU team leads next phase of Mars rover research

Two people look at a computer screen with an image of Mars in a dark room
Northern Arizona University
The Mars Lab at Northern Arizona University

A team at Northern Arizona University will take the wheel of NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover for its next phase of research. The scientists plan to compare satellite images of the Red Planet with what the rover is learning on the ground. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with lead scientist Christopher Edwards.

The Curiosity Rover, been up on Mars for a decade now, is that right?

Yeah, it’s been chugging along for a long time and doing great science, working its way up Mount Sharp.

That’s pretty impressive, some of us don’t have cars on the road for that long, you know?

No kidding, especially since it was supposed to last only about two years, Earth years. There’s some pretty amazing engineering that’s gone on with this rover, and it’s really showing no signs of slowing down, and NASA is so confident in that, that they put out another call for participating scientists to keep additional external scientists involved for at least another three years.

Right, so you and your team got funded to keep working on Curiosity. Tell me about this next phase, what are you interested in exploring?

The next phase is pretty interesting, I think. What we originally proposed was to ground truth some orbital data of some really, really, really simple locations, like sand dunes. We wanted to understand if from orbit we could accurately predict the size of sand grains on Mars, and that helps answer a whole bunch of questions about how does the wind act on Mars, can you extrapolate this to all of the other places that we know of sand forms and is observed from orbit on Mars, and what does that tell you about the climate and things like that today? But what we’re really interested in, what our second proposal was about, is looking at more complicated landscapes, things that have experienced a lot of interaction between water and the soil or rocks, basically. Can we start to tease out some of these signatures that we see from orbit to the ground? Specifically, we’re looking at things that look like bedforms, ancient fully preserved dunes from the past, that clearly cemented by something that had to do with water….So it’s pretty awesome that we’re able to link this orbit-to-ground in more complicated systems that the super simple validation we did previously.

So these fossilized sand dunes that you’re talking about, do you see anything like that on Earth?

It’s pretty rare on Earth. There are not a lot of examples. There’s a few, you can see things like ripples, really small scale features. But big preserved bedforms like we’re talking about, those are pretty rare.

Your team actually gets to drive the rover, is that right?

We participate in rover operations. We play different roles…. One of the roles that I play fairly routinely is the Surface Properties Scientist, which is a kind of hard role. We basically are trying to balance rover safety with science. A lot of times, we’re the ones who—in Surface Properties Scientist role—have to say no, you can’t do that, or no, you can’t drive that way, because the rocks are really sharp, and we don’t want to destroy the wheels early…. Other roles we’ve played in the past are things like Science Lead or Geology Science Lead. We help define the measurements you want to make during that day, we call it tactical planning, so: get the data down from the night before, look at the images, build consensus among the science team…. So it’s a pretty amazing turnaround in terms of the level of complexity, and I would say on any given day there’s probably 20-30 plus people involved with planning operations for Curiosity.

Lots of people to drive one little rover?

Exactly, so many people.

Christopher Edwards, thanks so much for speaking with me.

Thanks for having me.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.