Dean of Science speaks about Curiosity

Lecture described rover team’s goals, capabilities, plans for future years

DEAN OF THE SCHOOL OF SCIENCE LAURIE LESHIN DESCRIBES her experience as a member of the Curiosity team. She also spoke about the analysis that will be involved over the next few years.

On Friday, August 31, Dean of the School of Science Laurie Leshin spoke to RPI students and faculty about NASA’s Curiosity rover. The talk took place in the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies auditorium and lasted for two hours.

“We at Rensselaer feel a connection to this particular NASA mission,” said President Shirley Ann Jackson in the opening speech for the event. She referenced the school’s ties to NASA, including 14th President of RPI George M. Low, who worked as an administrator at NASA, and Leshin, who worked as part of the Curiosity team. Jackson also mentioned that she, Leshin, and Neil Armstrong share a birthday, August 5, which was also the day Curiosity landed. (“Best birthday ever,” said Leshin.)

Leshin started by playing a short, documentary-style video which detailed the landing process, complete with excited engineers watching the successful drop and a brief cameo by Bill Nye. “For anyone who tries to tell you that science and engineering are all about passionless pursuit of knowledge—bull,” commented Leshin.

During the talk, Leshin touched on most of the basics about the mission and the rover itself, from goals and capabilities to plans for the rest of its time.

According to one of the slides, “Curiosity’s primary scientific goal is to explore and quantitatively assess a local region on Mars’ surface as a potential habitat for life, past or present.” With that in mind, said Leshin, they chose Gale Crater as the landing site, a location with historical evidence of water.

Curiosity differs from its predecessors, Spirit and Opportunity, in several ways, explained Leshin. It’s significantly larger and uses nuclear power instead of solar panels, allowing it to continue working at night. It also has a much smaller landing ellipse (only about 20 km), giving the team greater precision over the rover’s initial placement.

Leshin also mentioned that the rover can be found on Twitter as @MarsCuriosity, where it periodically updates the public with videos, photos, and Back to the Future references. (Leshin made sure to point out that the rover currently has more followers than Twilight.)