Cheers erupted when the Mars Curiosity rover landed without a hitch on Monday morning, though the joy was not restricted to NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in California.
Copenhagen’s Niels Bohr Institute is collaborating with the American space agency to analyse the data sent back from the rover, which may lead to a better understanding of the origins and history of the Red Planet.
The rover took nine months to get to Mars and landed flawlessly in the 154 kilometre-wide Gale Crater near the planet’s equator. The area is significant as the crater has some of the oldest sediments on the planet, dating back more than 3.5 billion years to a time when water is thought to have flowed on the planet’s surface.
The secret to understanding the planet lies in its soil - it is still uncertain whether it is actually red. While the larger magnetic iron particles in the soil do have a red hue, it is the smaller dust particles that give the planet its colour.
“The environment is dry and there is lots of dust," Kjartan Kinch, from the Niels Bohr Institute’s Mars Group, told Ingeniøren. "We want to know how the dust was created and what it is made of. We know that it is magnetic, but we have so far not identified the minerals that make the planet red.
“The dust and its origin is interesting because Mars bears many similarities with Earth. We could use it as a museum about how the Earth used to be before life arose.”
The rover, which weighs a tonne and is the size of a small car, can scoop up and analyse small samples of material using a range of onboard instruments.
Morten Bo Madsen, the head of the Niels Bohr Institute, is currently at the Jet Propulsion Lab where data from Curiosity is received and analysed.
A veteran NASA collaborator, Madsen has worked as a researcher on several other Mars missions and explained how Curiosity will make an initial analysis of promising soil by shooting the ground with a laser.
“By analysing the spectra of the light that is formed when you shoot a laser at the ground, you can determine the elemental composition, and this can tell us a lot of interesting things,” Madsen wrote in a press release.” We can then get the rover to drive over to the area and take a sample, which is placed in the x-ray diffractometer that sits inside the rover. It is a bit complicated to get a sample with a lot of the very finest dust, but we hope it succeeds.”
The Danish Mars group is comprised of seven researchers with different specialties, including a nano-geoscientist and experts in the study of organic molecules and minerals using x-ray diffractometry.