By Jeff Gallatin
For Cleveland native and NASA propulsion engineer Wayne Zimmerman, the name Curiosity for the latest rover scheduled to explore Mars is appropriate.
“There’s definitely a lot of interest in what’s going on in that area with the public,” he said after he addressed a group of more than 100 people at the Lake Erie Nature and Science Center Aug. 25. “We get a lot of questions and people seem fascinated by what could be there.”
Zimmerman, a West Tech High School and Case Institute of Technology graduate who was back in the Cleveland area on vacation, gave the audience an overview of successes and not so successful aspects of past robot and satellite exploration of Mars. He also gave them a preview of the $2 billion Curiosity mission, in which a Mini-Cooper sized robot rover vehicle is scheduled to be launched this November and then land next August. After that project officials envision it roaming through a Martian crater with an assortment of tools to looks for signs of life on Mars – be it past or present.
“That’s always fascinated a lot of people,” he said.
When one audience member asked how and why the landing site was selected, Zimmerman said it was considered carefully and for some time.
“There was a lot of discussion about where to land it, and it wasn’t always polite,” he said. “Basically, the geologists won the discussion. They feel that it’s the best location to look for those signs of life because there are geologic signs that they should be able to collect materials better in that area.”
He said if it lands safely, Curiosity will be able to gather materials in an area near a mountain taller than Washington’s Mt. Rainer. He displayed graphics illustrating a potential landing, various parts of Mars and the different machines and equipment which have been and are planned to be used in exploration of Mars.
Zimmerman was one of the leaders in development of robotic arms and other equipment crucial to the gathering of samples and information for different missions. He said some missions such as the early 1960s Mariner, the 1970s Viking probes and the 2004 landings of rovers Spirit and Opportunity, did well or even better than expected.
“They have gathered a lot of useful information about Mars and its history,” he said, citing the data as helping show the planet was much warmer and wetter than it is now. He said the unexpected longevity of the exploration has been a major bonus for NASA and researchers.
“They’ve gone much longer than they were supposed to and gotten us a lot of information,’ he said, noting they were only supposed to go about three months, but instead went years with Opportunity still active.
He also detailed the disappointment of when landing rockets shut off too soon on the late 1990s Polar Lander, causing it to crash to the surface.
“It’s always tough for me when they’re descending,” he said. “It has to be just right and accurate for things to go well.”
Referring to Curiosity’s mission, he said the six-wheeled vehicle will be able to travel up to a tenth of a mile a day. The heat from the decay of its plutonium fuel pellets will generate electricity and are expected to help it run at least 23 months, and possibly longer if it gets results like the 2004 landings.
Once there, he said Curiosity will use its equipment to study whether the environment has the materials to support life such as tiny microbes and other indicators of possible life.
“We’re hoping that it could go years instead of months,” he said. “There are a lot of questions it can help answer.”