Scott McLennan was the lecturer for the Geosciences Department’s “Geology Open Night” presentation of “Roving on Mars: Where we have been; Where we are; Where we are going.” Photo by Julio Avila (Nov. 13, 2015)
By Julio Avila
There have been 43 missions to Mars. 20 of which were successful and two out of them were both a success and failure. Amid the success and failures, there is an allure that attracts mankind to want to return to the red terrestrial planet.
“We want to advance scientific knowledge,” Scott McLennan, a geology professor at Stony Brook University who focuses on geochemistry, said. “Science is almost always presented as the primary objective of these missions.”
McLennan was the lecturer for the Geosciences Department’s Geology Open Night presentation of “Roving on Mars: Where we have been; Where we are; Where we are going.” It presented to an audience of undergraduates, graduates, students of other majors, local residents, outside professionals and high school students past Mars missions, today’s missions and the future of Martian exploration.
Aside from the science, Martian missions are also used for technological development. Such development is for a team of engineers, McLennan said, that work with the rovers that traverse Mars’ surface, which are at the “cutting edge of robotics” of battery and solar technology.
“Sooner or later, it’s felt that we’re going to do human exploration and we have to prepare for that,” McLennan said.
Humankind’s first attempted mission to Mars was in 1960 when the Soviet Union launched the Korabl 4 spacecraft, which ended in failure, according to a NASA Mars Exploration Historical Log. The log stated that the first successful mission was in 1964 when NASA launched the Mariner 4 spacecraft. It landed successfully and sent back 21 black-and-white images.
There is a social aspect of Mars that attracts people to it.
“You certainly can’t underestimate the importance of the cultural attachment to Mars,” McLennan said. Some of the culture-related Mars examples McLennan mentioned were “War of the Worlds,” “Doctor Who” and “Flash Gordon”.
On social media, three rovers—Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity—had more than six billion web hits each in the first six months since the rovers began operation in 2003 (Spirit), 2004 (Opportunity) and 2011 (Curiosity), McLennan said. He added that Curiosity’s Twitter page has more than two million followers.
“People do have interest in this,” McLennan said. And people who attended the lecture share the same interests in Mars as well.
Gilbert Hanson, a fellow professor who specializes in geochemistry and geochronology, organized the lecture and introduced McLennan.
“It was a very nice, clean, clear description of what the history is [of the Mars missions],” Hanson said. He said the point of these lectures is to “report to the public what our faculty and graduate students” are researching and get a better understanding of the science.
“This gives an opportunity for people to see what sort of research is being done in geosciences,” Hanson said.
Mars is not Hanson’s area of study, he said, but does have an interest. “I like it because, one of the things that I’m very interested in is people sort of think that geology is somewhere else,” Hanson said. “In the case of Mars, they put a lander down, they don’t always know where it’s going to land and they find geology” on the planet’s surface.
Gen Ito, a geology student, said he would like to know more about the information and data that Curiosity will pick up and send back.
“For me, Mars is very mysterious,” Ito said. “It’s the closest planet to Earth that might have some chance of having life and having water.”
Brian Fairall, a 42-year-old pharmacy manager, said he thought the lecture was very informative who is interested in outer space since he was a toddler. Most of the lecture was information he knew, Fairall said, but enjoyed it nonetheless.
Fairall said that he found the similarities of the Martian terrain with that of Earth interesting, and that he thought Mars “is, maybe, not the best, but the least worst other place in the solar system.”
“Even just from the photos, there are parts that it is cold and dry, but there are parts of it that look like Arizona or Saudi Arabia or Mongolia and people certainly do live there,” Fairall said. “ I don’t expect like in movies that there will be millions of people living on Mars, but you might have, not now, but in a few hundred years, you might have a few hundred researchers that go there.”
Going towards the future, McLennan said there are “big things that are coming up,” such as the 2020 mission. It will consist of a rover with various technologies such as a Raman spectrometer, Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer among other “sophisticated” technologies.
One technology, however, will be PIXL— Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry, which has a strong “Stony Brook connection.” It will allow the ability to get a thin section of Mars and tell of the chemistry of the surface. Professor Joel Hurowitz is one of “principal investigators” working on this instrument, according to McLennan and NASA’s listing of the Mars 2020 rover’s technology.
“It’s a whole new approach and they’ve been talking about this for decades,” McLennan said. “You can send all kinds of instruments to Mars, and it’s quite staggering how sophisticated they are, but you’ll never be able to do on Mars what you can do in the laboratories on Earth.”
He said there is still more to be done and “hopefully in a year or two I’ll be back to talk more” about the mission.