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Safe landing, but now the real work starts

Professor Paulo de Souza

The world watched with bated breath this week as NASA’s Curiosity rover landed on the surface of Mars.

There was jubilation from scientists and science fans around the world as the rover touched down unharmed.

UTAS's Professor Paulo de Souza (Professor of Sensor Informatics and a collaborating scientist in the Mars Exploration Rover program) was in demand for his expertise during the landing, by the media and the public.

He delivered two public talks on the topic, one in Hobart and one in conjunction with QVMAG in Launceston.

Prof de Souza was pleased to see the excitement displayed by NASA’s Entry Landing Descent Team on TV.

He said in principal the landing went well, but it may be too early to be sure.

"The landing was so complex. That group leaves the room, then in comes the group that will operate the rover. They will then deal with the rover during the years to come.

"Now it is about ensuring the rover is healthy and that we get the most out of the mission by planning the next step.

"That is what NASA is going to do during the next few days, check all the systems: the electronics, communications, imagery, and test the scientific instruments on board doing scientific calibrations on board," Prof de Souza said.

"There is a lot of testing to be done to ensure that everything is working well."

What will Curiosity do on Mars now?

Prof de Souza said the Science and Operations Working Group (SOWG), which consists of a mix of scientists and engineers, will balance the resources of the rover.

"There is a certain amount of energy that can be used in a day and an amount of time to run operations.

"There are certain operations that cannot be run at night, such as taking images.

"The energy and the time available has to be balanced out. the thing we need to balance somehow is availability of communication.

"For example, I cannot transmit ten gigabytes of data; I have a limited amount of data that can be communicated every day."

Prof de Souza said communication is based on spacecraft availability. So when all the satellite flies into the right position and opens the opportunity for communication, it will last for 15 minutes and the scientists will have to communicate through that short time slot.

"Operations are constrained by all these aspects. The SOWG will be split into disciplines, such as geochemistry, soil properties, atmospheric properties, scientists working in those groups will be split. They will have a long-term plan.

"They can balance the long-term objectives of the mission with the objectives of today. There is a lot of planning in place of how to best do this."

Curiosity as a tourist: The rover’s first job

Prof de Souza said there will firstly be two key objectives for the rover- driving and taking photos of the surface.

"The first important result we have to get from the rover is a panorama image. 360 at highest possible resolution, in a few weeks.

"They will drive first then take photos, not both- because if something goes wrong they won’t know what caused the problem. They want to ensure the system is operating well.

"The panoramic image will be used to understand where the rover is sitting and which way is north. It is important when taking the panoramic image to not show shadow, so it takes a couple of days to realise where you are.

"So once you do that you cross that info with satellite imagery so you know exactly where you have landed.

"If you were looking at the panorama, the question is where would you go? That will be intense discussion between the scientists. So we won’t move too much initially."

How is felt as a scientist watching the rover land safely

"It was like being there again with Spirit and Opportunity (other Mars rovers). I saw my two daughters being born - it was more or less like that!

"The scientists had been working for such a long time and they were under a lot of pressure.

"It worked because the team was so engaged.

"For four years they were thinking, what could go wrong? Taking a shower, drinking a coffee, walking - thinking all the time, what might happen?

"I think that is why it was successful."

Published on: 09 Aug 2012 1:30pm