BLOOMINGTON – Now that the seven minutes of terror are over, two Indiana University geologists are ready to get to work.
Geologists David Bish and Juergen Schieber worked for years on components of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, and both traveled to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., to witness last Sunday’s landing after a 32-week flight to the Red Planet.
They – and everyone else associated with the project – worried about the intricate and complex seven-minute landing procedure and the potential for a glitch or catastrophic failure that could have scuttled the entire $2.5 billion project and everything they’d worked for.
The landing worked out flawlessly, however, meaning that both IU geologists will be spending the next three months in Pasadena working in teams guiding the research, and many more months back in Bloomington after that, analyzing data and other information.
Schieber is an expert in sedimentary geology and will analyze data from the Mars Hand Lens Imager on the landing vehicle named Curiosity.
The imager is a focusable color camera on the turret at the end of Curiosity’s robotic arm and will take close-up photographs of rocks, soil and, if present, ice.
Bish is the Haydn Murray Chair of Applied Clay Mineralogy and will work primarily on the CheMin, or chemistry and mineralogy component of the mission. His work wouldn’t be possible, he said, if he and two other researchers hadn’t been thinking ahead more than 20 years ago about coming up with a miniature X-ray diffraction instrument that could be used in space exploration.
Bish and associates from around the country developed an instrument so small it can be held with two hands, and runs on batteries.
The X-ray diffraction unit can tell us how the atoms are arranged, and that will tell us a great deal more, Bish said. A lot of what we are going to be doing on the surface of Mars is clay minerals. We will be able to analyze, for example, if liquid water has been present.