For the past two years, a small laboratory rover has been digging, sifting, and inspecting the surface of Mars in an attempt to understand what it would have been like to walk on the planet 3.5 billion years ago.
While the rover, appropriately named Curiosity, is collecting data on Mars, a team of 250 scientists from all over the world are working to analyze that data. University of Tennessee geology professor, Linda Kah, is one of those scientists.
“We landed on Mars two years ago with the goal of finding a region that may have been inhabitable,” Kah said at the UT Science Forum on Friday.
Kah came to the University of Tennessee in 2000 as an assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. She was named a distinguished professor in 2008.
The rover landed in Gale Crater, an area of major interest to scientists because it indicated potential of recording activity that happened 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago. Mineral evidence suggests that this was a period of climate change for the planet, when Mars was becoming colder and drier.
“It was a very important period in Martian history,” Kah said.
Curiosity is equipped with various instruments that measure radiation, weather, and the chemical composition of rocks. The rover also holds an X-ray diffractometer, which can detect the types of minerals in the rock on Mars.
“That’s the new thing. We’ve never had that before on any other planet,” Kah said.
Kah’s main role in the project is analyzing the sedimentary rock that has been found at Curiosity’s landing site. The structure and composition of the rocks reveals a lot about what Mars was like 3.5 billion years ago.
In the last two years, the sedimentary particles in Gale Crater have shown significant evidence of water. The distribution of particles and structure of the larger boulders are evidence of multiple, rapidly moving streams. Curiosity has also located very fine-grain particles, which are typical in areas where there was once standing water.
“NASA’s longtime goal has been to follow the evidence of water on Mars, because we know that water is required for life,” Kah explained.
Curiosity has the ability to travel up to 140 meters in one day, but in rougher territories, the rover can only move as far as can be seen safe from orbital imagery. Recently that has been between 30 and 50 meters per day.
“Sometimes we go out of the way for science, and sometimes we go out of the way for safety,” Kah said.
Curiosity is currently en route to Mount Sharp, an area that is expected to provide a large quantity of information about the fluid history of Gale Crater.
The public can follow Curiosity’s “road trip” online at NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory website.
The UT Science Forum meets every Friday from 12–1 p.m. in the Thompson Boling Arena Cafe room C-D.
Edited by Ryan McGill.