Mars lecture sparks curiosity on campus

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Tanner Hendershot
Scientists have reportedly discovered water on Mars from data collected by the Curiosity rover, a piece of technology currently exploring the planet, according to CNN. Westmont’s Winter Hall 210 was packed to the brim with students, faculty and alumni eager to learn about the Curiosity rover and the project on Mars from Dr. Roger C. Wiens on Friday, Oct. 6.
Wiens, is the chief scientist in charge of the ChemCam for the Curiosity Rover. He studied at Wheaton College for his undergraduate degree in physics, received his Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota, earned his post-doctorate at UCSD and has worked at CalTech for seven years.
Wiens weighed in on the goals of the Curiosity rover on Mars, stating that the four goals for the rover are to “examine biological potential on Mars, the geology of the landing region, to examine the past habitability of Mars and water and to understand the potential hazards of humans on Mars.”
The Curiosity rover, about the size of a car, was built to last for about one Mars year, or about two Earth years. Despite its one-year design, Wiens and other scientists are hoping it will last five to 10 years.
Although the rover was supposed to launch in 2009, the motors were not ready so it was launched in late 2011. The rover took around eight months to travel from Earth to Mars, where it successfully landed Aug. 6, 2012, using a sky crane to lower the rover from cables along with the aid of a parachute.
Because continuous radio communication with the rover takes too long and can be problematic, in order to operate it, engineers send up one set of commands to the rover each day to control it robotically. There are two satellites operating on Mars, according to Wiens. One communicates with the rover as it beams up the results to the satellite and sends the pictures and data back to Earth.
The ChemCam, the project Dr. Wiens is responsible for, is an instrument which uses laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy, or LIBS. The laser shoots a light, invisible to the human eye, at a very high intensity inside of rocks on Mars for a very short amount of time. The results recorded show the electronic emissions of the plasmas present in the rocks. This means that the ChemCam can detect the presence of elements inside of the rocks examined.
Ultimately, the goal of the Curiosity Rover is to see if life exists on Mars or if it once existed. The Curiosity rover, fitted with 160 pounds of equipment, is described as a mobile laboratory on Mars.
Just recently, the Curiosity rover discovered clay that had been laid down by water, with pH levels that are drinkable for humans, confirming water on Mars. Although forms of life have not been found yet on Mars, scientists are hopeful with the discovery of water and minerals similar to those found on Earth.
The lecture was well received by faculty and students alike. Dr. Julio, an associate professor of biology, said that “it is an amazing opportunity for Westmont to have someone who is a lead designer on such a famous and important mission to be able to talk at Westmont. I was extremely excited to see this room filled with students, faculty and some people from the community as well.”
Dr. Wiens is very excited for the future of the Curiosity project and the exploration of Mars. He said, “It could be possible for humans to build a station on Mars someday, perhaps in the next 100 years.” Wiens sees his career as an amazing opportunity. He said that it is a calling to explore frontiers of creation and the universe around us, which makes him hopeful for what the future of the exploration of Mars has in store.


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