A triumph of science and engineering, the faultless landing of the Mars Curiosity rover last summer — after eight months aboard an Atlas V rocket — also proved to be a telecommunications tour de force. As NASA’s biggest, most sophisticated planetary vehicle to date began its descent into Gale Crater Aug. 5, 2012, rover devotees worldwide were watching, listening, scrolling and taping. The drama played out in living rooms and conference rooms, courtesy of NASA TV and the agency’s Third Rock Radio; in New York’s Times Square on a colossal Toshiba Vision screen; on Xbox Live; on museum webcasts; at viewing parties in venues like L.A.’s Griffith Observatory; and on computers and handhelds via mobile apps and Twitter feeds.
Fueling the excitement was an international awareness of the enormity of the accomplishment. The success story began with designing and building the most advanced mobile science laboratory ever to land on another planet, as well as a novel landing system. Earlier rovers sought to “follow the water” on Mars through geological exploration — in fact, valuable data still streams from the rover Opportunity, which landed in early 2004. Curiosity, in contrast, is conducting geochemistry, allowing scientists to understand past environments in detail. The plutonium-powered vehicle carries a payload comprising two laboratories, for organic and for mineralogical analysis, as well as 10 state-of-the art instruments. Among these is a radiation assessment detector designed with an eye to future human exploration.
As a first step in depositing the $2.65 billion, one-ton explorer safely on Mars, the transporting spacecraft wore a heat-deflecting, speed-reducing aeroshield. Executing a soft landing with Curiosity’s critical cargo intact involved hundreds of functions that, except for last-minute rocket-power adjustments, were so intricate that they had to be pre-programmed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in Pasadena, Calif. Accordingly, the spacecraft was positioned at precisely the right angle when it slammed into the thin Martian atmosphere more than 13,000 mph — at which point it had seven minutes to slow to 1.5 mph for the rover’s touchdown. As the spacecraft hurtled toward Mars’ surface, the programmed sequences enabled deceleration by means of entropy (heat transfer) descent, relying first on the aeroshield, which jettisoned on schedule minutes later, activating an exceedingly strong high-velocity parachute to further slow the drop. As soon as onboard radar detected Mars’ surface, a one-of-a-kind sky crane switched on as thrusters fired to slow the craft even more. Clutching the rover, the sky crane dropped from the spacecraft, hovered and gently lowered the vehicle on 25-foot nylon cables to a spot near the sedimentary Mount Sharp in Gale Crater’s center — exactly as planned. Once the teams at JPL checked and then activated instrumentation in the days that followed, Curiosity began to follow its name.
WUSTL connects to Mars
For all the rapt attention paid to Curiosity’s risky but perfectly executed landing — during what NASA famously called “seven minutes of terror” — comparatively few observers on that August night were professionally invested in the triumph. Fewer still will be actively working during the prime mission’s two years, and beyond, to determine whether Mars may have had all the conditions necessary to support life and possibly support it now. The pros who are both stakeholders in the mission (officially, the Mars Science Laboratory) and directly responsible for planning, executing and analyzing every aspect of the investigation going forward are approximately 420 scientists from academia, government and industry.
Nine members of this select company are Washington University’s own. One is Raymond E. Arvidson, PhD, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor in Arts & Sciences and longtime deputy principal investigator for the Mars Exploration Rover Mission (Spirit and Opportunity). The remaining eight are Arvidson’s protégés, of whom six are women: Bethany Ehlmann, PhD, BS ’04; Abby Fraeman, PhD Class of ’14; Jen Griffes, BS ’03, MA ’06; Kim Lichtenberg, MA ’06, PhD ’10; Kirsten Siebach, BS ’11; Rebecca Eby Williams, PhD ’00. The number is notable, of course, because ratios in physical science and engineering nationwide typically skew toward men.
“I wake up, and I am so excited to go to work! It is so interesting. I love being part of a team,” Lichtenberg says. “I definitely could have found other jobs working collaboratively, and using and honing my abilities — but I wouldn’t also be working on a Hummer-size rover on Mars!”
For more on the university’s MSL mission home team, visit the sidebar above at left, “WUSTL Scientists of the Red Planet.”
Small group academic experience builds success
These alumni exemplify the strength of a Washington University education in STEM or medicine. The women are part of a well-known trend: Increasing numbers of women are enrolling in these fields. (On the other hand, too many women nationally switch out of STEM before graduation.) And in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, the overwhelming majority of undergraduate and graduate students are women. Similarly, many more women than men sign up for Arvidson’s Pathfinder Program, as did Ehlmann, Siebach and others.
“I always wind up with a group of students who are academically absolutely outstanding,” Arvidson says. “The men are great, but for whatever reason, the classes are mostly female.”
The women in the Pathfinder Program, which is not a major, tend to remain in science or engineering. “I think that has to do with just taking the time and care to understand what their frustrations and concerns might be, and not directing them but just being there to counsel them,” Arvidson says. “If they want to go in a particular direction, we talk it through — so they can go where they want to go. And it seems to have worked!”
“Ray is amazing,” says Gina Frey, PhD, the Florence Moog Professor of STEM Education and executive director of the Teaching Center. Jennifer R. Smith, PhD, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences and associate professor of earth and planetary sciences, agrees: “Ray’s approach in the Pathfinder Program is a model of the small-group academic experience, and it is similar to working groups in a great deal of scientific and collaborative research. With his incoming freshmen, he builds a strongly interactive and effective group.”
In addition to providing financial support through numerous scholarships and fellowships (See Admissions’ and schools’ websites), Washington University supports STEM students in many ways. One is the Center for Integrative Research on Cognition, Learning and Education(CIRCLE), which Frey co-directs. It connects faculty who have innovative ideas with researchers on projects that improve students’ learning. Another is the growing Peer-Led Team Learning program serving chemistry, physics and calculus I, II and III students. Highly trained senior students facilitate meetings where fixed groups thoroughly discuss and solve problems — building strong cognitive problem-solving skills and lasting community.
While Curiosity’s discoveries still lie ahead — as this magazine goes live, the mission is still in its infancy — Washington University’s women and men will help make history and illuminate new paths on Earth. Science-team member Fraeman, who is also part of a contributing orbiting instrument team from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, is already becoming well-known in the science community. Using data from NASA’s 186-mile-high Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and CRISM (its Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars), an orbital hyperspectral mapping instrument, she identified a ridge on Mars containing hematite, which on Earth can form in association with microbial systems. She was invited to lecture about her research at the Geological Society of America’s meeting in North Carolina in October 2012.
Speaking of such women in science, as well as of diversity in general, Arts & Sciences’ Smith says: “The diversity of perception and ideas is valuable. When a group is diverse, people represent different thought patterns and don’t necessarily make the same assumptions as everyone else. Others in the group are exposed to different kinds of thinking. That is very important in science, as it is in every activity.”
Judy H. Watts is a freelance writer based in Rohnert Park, Calif., and a former editor of this magazine.
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