Mars Science Laboratory
Mars Science Laboratory, aka the Curiosity rover, is
part of NASA's Mars Exploration Program. Following in the tire
tracks of the successful Spirit, Opportunity, and
Sojourner rovers, Curiosity will be substantially
larger and more capable. About the size of a Mini Cooper and
nuclear powered, Curiosity picks up where the previous
missions left off, looking to see if Mars ever had an environment
capable of supporting life, and if so, where we might look for it
in the future.
Curiosity will use 10 science instruments to examine
rocks, soil, and the atmosphere. Dr. David Grinspoon of the Denver
Museum of Nature & Science is a coinvestigator on one of these
instruments, known as the Radiation Assessment Detector, or RAD.
The goal of RAD is to take the first-ever measurements of radiation
at the surface of Mars. By measuring things like cosmic rays and
gamma rays, Dr. Grinspoon can learn about the Martian environment
and its history, as well as the possibility of life both in the
past and perhaps even the present.
"On Earth, radiation is important for the evolution of life. It
can kill, but radiation also causes mutations that are necessary
for the evolutionary process. So it's not completely our enemy,"
Dr. Grinspoon said.
Knowing the amount of radiation present at the surface of Mars
also has other implications, specifically for human safety.
"When humans eventually go and live and explore on Mars, we're
going to need to understand the radiation better. For example, how
deep underground would a human or organism have to go in order to
survive? How much dirt would they bury their habitat under?" Dr.
The mission is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida,
in late 2011, and arrive at Mars in August 2012.
Photo Credit: NASA
NASA Astrobiology Institute Titan Team
The NASA Astrobiology Institute is a multidisciplinary,
multi-institution organization dedicated to understanding the role
of life in the universe. The Titan team is a group funded for five
years to understand organic chemistry on Saturn's moon Titan, which
has many similarities to the chemistry on early Earth that led to
the origin of life.
"Titan is a strangely earth-like place, even though it's a billion
miles from the sun and frightfully cold. But it has a thick,
nitrogen-based atmosphere that's like ours, and it's the only other
one we know of. Plus, thanks to the spacecraft Cassini, we know
that Titan is young and active with rivers and lakes of liquid
methane as well as meteorology.So Titan has much of the same
activity as Earth, only with different materials," Dr. David
Grinspoon, curator of astrobiology at the Denver Museum of Nature
& Science said.
Dr. Grinspoon is a coinvestigator on the Titan science team and is
particularly interested in possible metabolisms for life on
"In other words, if there were bugs or creatures or bacteria on
Titan, what would they eat, what kinds of chemicals would be in the
environment that would serve as an energy source? I've identified
some promising nutrients, and I'm doing studies of how much of that
stuff would be available, and how much energy would be released,"
said Dr. Grinspoon.
He also is the head of Education and Public Outreach (EPO) for
the team, which means he works with educators and communication
specialists to teach the public about Titan and the work the team
is doing. There are several Museum-related projects, including the
development of a new Planetarium show involving visuals and live
music, a Space
Odyssey stage show, and a Titan-themed lecture series.
Photo Credit: NASA
Venus Express, launched by the European Space Agency in 2005, is
the first weather satellite at the planet Venus. Thanks to a set of
state-of-the-art instruments for planetary investigations, it is
digging into the secrets of the Venusian atmosphere, and studying
its complex dynamics and chemistry, as well as the interactions
between the atmosphere and the surface.
Dr. David Grinspoon is an interdisciplinary scientist on the team,
and only one of two Americans to hold the position. His job is to
float between the smaller teams organized around each onboard
scientific instrument and coordinate the ideas, observations, and
interpretations for the larger group.
"It's always exciting to be part of an active mission that's
getting new data from another planet, but in the case of Venus
Express, it's also interesting in terms of the international
cooperation," Dr. Grinspoon said.
The team has already made some intriguing discoveries, such as
evidence of lightning on Venus.
"There's a magnetometer on board, which is a radio instrument that
hears the static of lightning. Think of when you're driving along
in a storm with your AM radio on, and you hear a ksssh ksssh-it's
like that," said Dr. Grinspoon.
More recently, Venus Express has taken an image of the surface of
the planet using infrared cameras. The cameras found relatively
young lava flows, which seems to demonstrate that Venus is still
geologically active, or in a sense, alive.
Photo Credit: ESA