Students in the Salt River Elementary School (SRES) S.T.E.M. Talk program had the opportunity on April 14 to see a brief PowerPoint presentation and speak to Dr. Ashwin Vasavada, senior scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and project scientist for the Curiosity Mars rover, which is part of the Mars Science Laboratory project. Vasavada has been deputy project scientist for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory project since 2004, and in 2015 he took over as project scientist to coordinate the efforts of an international team of scientists working on the project.
The event took place in the SRES Computer and Technology Lab, where the students and guests could view Vasavada’s presentation on a large screen with live video streaming and talk with him through Skype. Vasavada shared the most updated information on the Curiosity rover and its explorations of the surface of Mars.
Curiosity is a robot that arrived on Mars on August 6, 2012. It has six wheels and is about the size of a car, measuring 9.5 feet long, about 9 feet wide and a little over 7 feet high. It is much larger than its older cousin, the Mars Opportunity rover, which is the size of a golf cart. Opportunity landed on Mars back in January 2004.
Curiosity’s main objective is to analyze the past and present geology, climate, water and other environmental conditions to search for “habitable environments” capable of supporting microbial life. This information also can help with preparation for potential future human exploration of Mars. The Curiosity rover uses specialized high-resolution cameras to take images, and it can drill into rocks to gather samples to be analyzed by its internal laboratory unit. All this information is then communicated back to Earth. According to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory website, as of April 16, Curiosity passed the 10-kilometer mark (6.214 miles) of total driving since its 2012 landing.
Dr. Vasavade share with the students why he, and the other scientists on the project believe Mars was once suitable for life. Vasavada said to the students, “When the Curiosity Rover landed on Mars, I was there [in Mission Control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory]—you could hear the yelling [and other exclamations of joy]!” He showed the students images taken by Curiosity that show the terrain. He explained how certain soil samples gathered by Curiosity, similar to clay, indicate that there was an ancient lake on Mars.
Vasavada discussed how the Curiosity rover moves around the surface to collect samples; how scientists believe Mars is similar to the Earth in its makeup; and how they believe studying Mars will provide a history of past environmental conditions, which would be helpful to understanding future environmental impacts on our planet.
Vasavada asked the students, “What do you think you would need to survive on Mars?” They yelled out “food,” “animals,” “air,” “water”—and there was also a loud shout-out for McDonalds!
The SRES students who participated in the video conferencing session appeared to be interested and intrigued by the information being provided to them. Vasavada was very personable and engaging with the students, and it appeared he connected very well with them.
After the PowerPoint presentation, the students took turns sitting at a computer equipped with a microphone and video camera and asked questions of Vasavada. They has a number of questions for Vasavade such as, where he went to college, what his degree was in, how the Curiosity rover communicates, and more.
One student asked, “When will you be bringing the Curiosity rover back [to Earth]?” Vasavada answered, “The rover will not be coming back, but we can go to Mars to see her!” (In the future, when man is able to travel to Mars.) Student Falcon Reed asked, “How long does it take to get Curiosity to move?” Vasavada replied, “It takes time. There is about a 15-minute delay once a signal is sent, so we send a list of directions [and instructions] so she can move through them in sequence.”
The Curiosity Mars Rover Mission presentation was part of a series of S.T.E.M. Talk sessions, which is an initiative of the Robotics Club and the Computer and Technology Lab at Salt River Elementary School.