John Grotzinger ’79 is the mission leader and project scientist responsible for planning the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), which will launch the Mars Curiosity Rover on Nov. 25. The size of a small car, Curiosity is much larger than its predecessors and Grotzinger has been quoted about its particular capabilities in a number of publications recently, including the New York Times Magazine and New Science. The rover is expected to land on Mars in August 2012.
In the New York Times Magazine on Nov. 13, Heather Havrilesky wrote, “The Mars Curiosity Rover, a Mini Cooper-size nuclear-powered vehicle that will launch on Nov. 25, doesn’t aim to answer David Bowie’s burning question, exactly. The chief scientist John Grotzinger says the $2.5 billion mission seeks ‘insight into the evolution of Mars’ through a Calvin and Hobbes-esque neutron-shooting hydrogen detector and X-ray beam.”
A more detailed article in New Scientist provides an in-depth explanation of the rover’s mission, its key differences from its predecessors Spirit and Opportunity, and how it will work. Among the most significant changes from the earlier rovers to this more advanced one is its size. To land Curiosity safely, scientists and engineers have designed a series of weights, parachutes and a sky crane. The article notes:
“The ballet of moves that precedes the sky crane’s deployment is also an advance. Tilting the probe by jettisoning weights gives it much greater aerodynamic control, enabling the target landing site to be an ellipse just 20 kilometers long – one-seventh of that needed for Spirit and Opportunity. “When you have a larger ellipse, you rule out all the most interesting places,” says Grotzinger. That’s because larger footprints are more likely to include steep slopes or fields of boulders – terrain too dangerous to risk landing on. “This is the first time in the history of the exploration of Mars where we have been unencumbered by engineering constraints to really debate landing site options,” he says.”
Curiosity’s mission is to detect organic compounds that may point to the one-time existence of life on Mars. The article explains why the mission is not described as to “detect life” itself, as even looking for the compounds that could tell scientists conditions were once right for life will be a challenge. “Detecting organic compounds is more than a needle in a haystack,” Grotzinger is quoted.
The article goes on to note, however, “Curiosity has a better chance of success, in part because of its landing site. On Earth, organic molecules tend to be trapped and preserved in fine particles. That makes landing next to clays at the base of Gale crater’s enormous mountain so promising.
“Shortly after it has landed, the rover will begin to climb the mound. As it ascends, it will also encounter other water-related features where life may have found a toehold, including channels that might once have held water. The diversity of these features was a draw to landing at Gale, says Grotzinger: ‘We get to study not just one but several potentially habitable environments.'”
Grotzinger is the Fletcher Jones Professor of Geology at the California Institute of Technology. He is an eminent sedimentologist and stratigrapher with wide-ranging interests in sedimentary processes, geobiology, and Earth’s early history.
He previously served as the Shrock Professor of Earth Sciences and Director of the Earth Resources Laboratory at M.I.T. There, Grotzinger researched and investigated the spontaneous burst of life that spawned the early ancestors of all animals, otherwise known as the Cambrian Explosion, which remains one of the most debated and mysterious topics in evolutionary biology. He applied his theories of evolution to the study of Mars and developed digital mapping techniques that will allow him and his colleagues to study Martian geology for signs of life.
Grotzinger earned a B.S. in geoscience from Hobart and was a member of the lacrosse team. He earned an M.S. from the University of Montana and a Ph.D. from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
In 1992, he was presented the Young Scientist Award (Donath Medal) by The Geological Society of America. A decade later, he was one of only 28 scientists chosen by NASA to participate in the 2003 Mars Exploration Rover Mission, during which he performed an analysis of Martian sediments and sedimentary rocks and assessed the role of liquid water in shaping Martian landforms. Also in 2002, Grotzinger was elected into the National Academy of Sciences, one of the highest honors that can be accorded a U.S. scientist. He has also been awarded the National Science Foundation Young Investigator Award, the Fred Donath Medal from the Geological Society of America, the Henno Martin Medal from the Geological Society of Namibia, and the Charles Doolittle Walcott Medal by the National Academy of Sciences.
He returned to the Colleges as a Druid lecturer in 1996.