OU Scientists were in great demand for expert analysis and comment on the ambitious mission which reached the red planet early on Monday 6 August 2012.
Professor John Zarnecki, Dr Stephen Lewis, Dr Matt Balme and Dr Susanne Schwenzer were quoted in The Sunday Times, Telegraph, Guardian, Independent and Evening Standard and appeared on BBC Radio Four, Sky News, BBC World Service, CNBC UK, BBC Look East, BBC Three Counties Radio and many other local radio stations.
He said, “Just like weather forecasts on Earth, we had to predict what was going to happen on Mars when the lander arrived, so that it could enter the atmosphere, descend and land safely.”
NASA’s Curiosity Rover landed on Mars at 06:31 (BST) on 6 August using a revolutionary combination of heat shield, parachute and the hovering ‘sky crane’ to decelerate from over 20,000 km/hr to a gentle and accurate landing in just seven minutes.
Both the density of the atmosphere and the wind shears that the spacecraft might encounter had to be known to ensure that the landing was a success. Since the mission was planned for years in advance, seasonal predictions had to be made within a likely range. Like Earth, Mars can have unpredictable weather, and the weather prediction models, some run at The Open University, were combined with regular monitoring of satellite images. In the event, weather conditions were as predicted, with light cirrus ice clouds in the region, but no dust storms sweeping up from the southern hemisphere polar cap edge, where many small storms could be seen in the weeks before landing. These do not tend to move so close to the equator (the landing site is at 4.6°S) at this time of year on Mars.
The Curiosity rover, which has a mass of nearly 1 tonne, is a deploying the most powerful suite of instruments yet sent to Mars with the aim of exploring whether Mars was ever able to support life. It will analyse the geology and past climate of Mars through a record of rocks and soil within the Gale Crater.
Dr Lewis added, “Understanding how the climate of Mars has changed remains a great challenge and will tell us not only about whether Mars was ever habitable but about how the climate of planets like the Earth evolves.”
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