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In Utah, NASA scientist recounts rover's Martian chronicles

Published August 30, 2012 10:51 am

Science • Rover is almost ready to start exploring Red Planet.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Orem • The worries over sticking the landing are over, the testing is nearly done and Curiosity is about ready to start checking out Mars.

Todd Barber, one of the NASA propulsion engineers who worked on the rover's rocket system at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasedena, Calif., discussed how Curiosity survived its 8½ months of travel to the Red Planet and its seven-minutes-of-terror descent to start doing the science the $2.5 billion rover was designed to do.

"The popularity is high because the science potential is so high because of the chemistry lab, the mobility and the geology lab, and the juicy, juicy landing site," he said. "We have never, ever been in an environment so modified by water."

Barber talked Wednesday night to a standing-room-only crowd of about 150 at the Orem Public Library. He thanked parents and Boy Scout leaders for bringing children to his presentation.

"Sometimes math and science don't sound like the most fun thing to do, but this is what you get to do when you work really, really hard at math and science," said Barber, who graduated from MIT and has worked at NASA for more than 20 years. He was in Utah to learn how to better present scientific information by attending the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival, which starts Thursday and runs through Saturday.

Scientists scored a perfect 10 on the landing, which involved a supersonic parachute, retrorockets and a sky crane to slow the largest-ever unmanned vehicle from a descent velocity of 13,000 mph to a soft landing on the surface of the planet. NASA scientists want to make sure everything is working properly on the rover and that the path is fairly clear before they send it along Gale Crater toward the three-mile-high Mt. Sharp.

For the first time, a rover on Mars has more than just geological tools, Barber said. In addition to a rock-zapping infared laser, it has ovens and sensors that can determine the chemical compositions and mineral makeup of the Martian rocks.

NASA scientists purposely set down the rover in a deep crater that has a mountain of layered rock near it.

"The Gale Crater has left the walls exposed like the Colorado River has done to the Grand Canyon," Barber said.

Scientists are searching for the chemical traces of life, such as carbon, nitrogen and a handful of other elements. They also are looking at how methane is produced on Mars — on Earth, it's made by microbial organisms called methanogens.

A convergence of three different types of terrain is about five football fields away from where Curiosity landed, and that's the first place the rover is headed. The rover moves, at most, about 200 yards a day, so it will take about a month to get to that area.

The end goal is to get to Mt. Sharp, where there is even more interesting terrain.

"There are clays and sulfates there, which on Earth form in water," Barber said. "That's the juicy part of the mission."

smcfarland@sltrib.com

Twitter: @sheena5427 —

Timpanogos Storytelling Festival

When • Thursday through Saturday

What • Storytelling performances and workshops

Where • Orem Public Library, 58 N. State Street, Orem and Mount Timpanogos Park in Provo Canyon

Tickets • $25 adult day pass, $20 for kids

More information • Visit timpfest.org