Pique your curiosity: Hitch a ride on NASA's latest mission to Mars

Curiosity (artist rendering courtesy of NASA)

A little less than one year ago, Cleveland native and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer Wayne Zimmerman visited Lake Erie Nature & Science Center to present an insider’s view of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. Zimmerman, who leads development of advanced robotic arms and instruments used in the program, talked about his contributions to NASA’s various expeditions to the red planet. He then screened a preview of what, at the time, was the forthcoming launch of Curiosity, the largest and most instrument-rich Mars Science Laboratory to date.

Curiosity, a mobile robotic exploration device, or rover (imagine a sophisticated Wall-E), has been charged with a mission to determine whether Mars, the planet most like Earth, contains evidence that it was ever a habitat for life.  

At time of writing, Curiosity is slated to wrap up its 8 1/2 month, 354 million mile journey to the surface of Mars in the early hours of Monday, Aug. 6. “If everything goes according to plan,” says Lake Erie Nature & Science Center Planetarium Specialist Dave Schordock, “a high-definition imaging system making its debut on this rover will begin to record the remainder of the landing – and we’ll actually feel like we are passengers returning to Mars.”

Schordock expects even more footage as Curiosity continues its exploration of Gale Crater, the landing site chosen because it has both unique geological features and a mountain larger than Mount Rainier in Washington. 

“We’re looking for three things when we’re trying to determine if an environment supports life,” said Schordock.  “The first is water, and earlier Mars missions confirmed that water existed in the past on Mars.” Detection of the second and third compounds, carbon and a source of energy, can only be completed by analyzing the composition of rocks and other items found on the surface. Enter Curiosity’s Chem-Cam, which shoots a laser capable of heating rocks until they turn into plasma and a camera that matches the color of the plasma to a known compound.

In 2011, NASA’s Wayne Zimmerman told a crowd of 200-plus that, because of the Mars Science Laboratory missions, “we have found a world that nobody could even imagine.” With stunning imagery, he shared a glimpse of that world and left the audience eagerly awaiting the next leg of the journey.

Lake Erie Nature & Science Center will pick up where Zimmerman left off with “Return to Mars,” the latest entry in the Monthly SkyQuest planetarium series. The Aug. 11 program will recap Curiosity’s journey and talk about what it might find as it explores the red planet. 

“We hope to be able to present the latest footage direct from Mars,” said Schordock. “The landing alone will be fascinating and I can’t wait to see what else Curiosity will discover.”

“Return to Mars” will repeat every Saturday in August at 1:30 p.m. and also at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 18. Tickets go on sale for $3/person on the day of each show. 

Lake Erie Nature & Science Center is located at 28728 Wolf Rd. in Bay Village. Visit www.lensc.org or call 440-871-2900 with questions.

Kathleen Shields

Kathleen Shields is the Communications Specialist at Lake Erie Nature & Science Center.

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Volume 4, Issue 16, Posted 10:29 AM, 08.07.2012