Scientist whose working day is on Mars
It is arguably one of the most enviable jobs on – or off – the planet, and one that comes with supreme bragging rights. Today, Dr Vandi Verma Tompkins was set to find out whether the job is still hers as Nasa’s Curiosity rover made its final, hair-raising approach to Mars.
Should the £1.6 billion vehicle touch down intact, Dr Verma – a roboticist, trailblazer and thrill-seeker working at Nasa’s jet propulsion laboratory in Pasadena, California – will be ready to hop into the driving seat. Not literally – but certainly virtually.
From her vantage point 154 million miles from Mars, at this sprawling facility in the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains, she will have a daily “presence” on the Red Planet as one of Curiosity’s operators.
“I do realise that I possibly have one of the coolest jobs in the world,” she agrees. “I can honestly say I get up every day and go to work on Mars.”
Working daily with fellow robotics experts, engineers and scientists to set goals and agree manoeuvres, she will help move the one-ton planetary explorer around its environment, operating its formidable “arm” that will drill into rocks, shoot them up with lasers, clutch at samples, place them under its magnifying scope and fulfil the most precise, sophisticated and jaw-dropping analysis of Mars’ geology ever made in the hunt for clues that life may once have existed.
After an entry, descent and landing sequence that will take it through a fiery encounter with the martian atmosphere, speeding at 13,200mph then touching down on sky-hooks in a complex process that Nasa has dubbed “seven minutes of terror”, Curiosity will send a message known as an EVR – Event Record – in the form of a UHF signal to indicate that it has landed.
The signal will be relayed via the Mars Odyssey orbiter flying overhead and sent down to a tracking station in Australia belonging to the Deep Space Network. Today, if there is no signal, it could mean trouble. Nasa remained hopeful last night.
“Can we do this? Yes, I think we can,” said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars exploration programme. “But if we’re not successful, we’re going to learn from this.”
Curiosity will require a protracted “checkout” period before it can set to work. For Dr Verma Tompkins, there could be a wait of around ten days before the pyrotechnic bolt on the robotic arm is fired to release it from its stowed position.
“Curiosity has gone through this amazing interplanetary journey to this place that fascinates us and could hold such compelling evidence that maybe we’re not alone in the universe,” she says.
“The emotional part of me says ‘Let’s go for it, day one, let’s get that arm moving and get down to business.’ The sensible part of me says ‘OK, breathe, stay calm, let’s take this one step at a time.’”
The instrumentation carried aboard Curiosity is extraordinary in its sophistication.
There is, for example, an infra-red laser that, by focusing more than one million watts of power on a single spot for five one-billionths of a second, can turn a pinhead-sized rock or soil sample to plasma. A telescope will observe the resulting flash and feed it into 20ft of optical fibres leading to three spectrometers. They form just a fraction of the scientific brilliance that is on board.
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