By Mitchell Zimmer As announced in the Western News, NASA selected John Moores as one of 29 participating scientists for NASA's latest mission to Mars. Moores is going to employ a laser fitted on the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover Curiosity differently than its intended use. "The main reason for having that laser is to ascertain the composition of the rocks and to vaporize the dust. That’s what’s driving the design of that laser," he says. “What we propose to do, since the laser is already there and since the camera’s already there, is to see if we can add a little value by pointing the laser up at the sky and taking some pictures there."
Moores' proposal will turn Curiosity on its head
Moores has been involved in previous NASA projects to Mars. The Phoenix mission had a LIDAR (LIght Detection And Ranging ) specifically designed for atmospheric studies in the polar region. "We have seen clouds with the LIDAR, you never know if they go all the way down to the surface, from this data we can say it does. The really fantastic thing about this data set is that it’s brighter up here than it is down here what that means is, to an atmospheric scientist we know that this packet of air is colder than that packet up there so the fact that there is less ice in it means that this ice is on the ground."
Curiosity will enable Moores to piece together data to help give a more complete picture of the Martian atmosphere. The MSL will allow him to look for ice crystals in the equatorial region. "The lovely thing is that it’s perfect timing. It wasn’t designed to look for that fog, but it is capable of finding it." There is a caveat, since the laser and camera system on Curiosity was designed for studying rock samples Moores says "We will only be able to see, because of the geometry, of an order of one hundred meters. It’s possible to see more farther than that, but the signal gets difficult to interpret. The interesting thing is that we have orbital imagery now from Mars Express that shows Valles Marineris [a Martian rift zone] and many other low points around the equator filled with fog in the early morning. Even though we didn’t expect it and there are models out there that suggest that it can’t happen, there it is."
Since Curiosity is nuclear powered, there is the possibility that his project can be a long term study. “We hope to track this over the course of a Martian year,” says Moores. “We know that some of the clouds appear at times like the evening and not at other ones.” The time of the Martian year that Moores would be most interested in seeing is when Mars is at the aphelion, the point in its orbit where it is farthest from the Sun. "There’s something called the Aphelion Cloud Belt around the equator…. This is something that Opportunity and Spirit have observed as well, these lovely displays. The idea is that we will do this as frequently as we can get it in there."
Moores says that, at present, it is unknown how low to the ground these clouds are, "that is something we hope to be able to solve. From orbit we know that they’re confined to these topographic lows so they’re in Valles Marineris." It would be necessary for Curiosity to make its way down many kilometers to the bottom of Valles Marineris to see if the fog reached there. Moores adds, "If it did that would be very exciting for the geology, because it means that water interacts directly with the soil."
Now that Moores is a participating scientist in the MSL. "It means that much more and you’re that much more nervous as is the clock is counting down. You’re waiting for it and you want it to go well and everything that is coming out of Mission Control sounds good but you never know. You just don’t want it to be over before it has begun." Now that he has a stake in the mission, he found that waiting for the launch was "nerve wracking … this is the first rocket launch I’ve seen and I’ve been on four space missions before, but I’ve never made it to a launch. This one I had actually made my plans before I was informed that I was a participating scientist. I said this one, 'I’m invited to it, I’m going to go and see it, because I’ve never seen it before.'"
Observing a launch is always done from safe distance, “and more so with this particular rover because of the fact it has a nuclear battery on board,” says Moores. “So the exclusion zone was a bit larger this time than it had been in the past. We were all the way out to six miles.”
By Mitchell Zimmer
As announced in the Western News, NASA selected John Moores as one of 29 participating scientists for NASA's latest mission to Mars. Moores is going to employ a laser fitted on the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover Curiosity differently than its intended use. "The main reason for having that laser is to ascertain the composition of the rocks and to vaporize the dust. That’s what’s driving the design of that laser," he says. “What we propose to do, since the laser is already there and since the camera’s already there, is to see if we can add a little value by pointing the laser up at the sky and taking some pictures there."