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Caltech offers students a role in Mars rover project

August 06, 2012|By Jon Bardin | This post has been corrected. See the note below for details.
  • John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, waits with the Mars rover mission's scientists and engineers.
John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)

As the rover descended to the surface of Mars last night, Caltech President Jean-Lou Chameau was doing something that no other university president gets to do: He was in mission control, his heart racing.

 “It was the most exciting event of my entire life,” Chameau said in an interview Monday. “It’s hard to describe the experience, the pressure that exists in that room. It was emotional, and it was draining. I can tell you that my colleagues at other universities should be envious.”

 JPL, which runs the Curiosity mission, is a division of Caltech, and a number of the scientists and engineers on the Curiosity team are Caltech professors. And Chameau sees space exploration as Caltech and JPL’s baby. “Caltech has been involved in space exploration since space exploration began. We created JPL many years before NASA was created,” he said. And it was JPL that built the United States’ first satellite, Explorer 1, which was launched in 1958. NASA was founded later that year.

Photos: Mars rover mission

 Chameau says NASA’s mission provides an opportunity for young Caltech students at the undergraduate and graduate levels to actively participate in the Curiosity mission as part of the team. “The chief scientist, John Grotzinger, is a Caltech professor. He oversees a group of students who will be involved in the research. They will be the ones designing the experiments and analyzing the data. Like any research project on campus, there will be students involved.”

 Bethany Ehlmann, another Caltech scientist on the project, oversees students who are helping with ChemCam, the set of tools that will analyze the makeup of the soil.  Ehlmann’s students are developing reference libraries by studying rocks here on Earth in a low-pressure chamber. Based on their work, the rover’s science team can more quickly identify the minerals that ChemCam detects.

 Of the role that students can play in the missions, Chameau says that “it is very close to the best advertising Caltech could get. It’s also great advertising for science and technology, and it will benefit Caltech. But it will also benefit [students at] many other universities as well.” That’s because most of the data will be publicly available, allowing academics around the world to study Mars alongside Caltech professors.

 Nevertheless, Caltech scientists and their students at JPL are particularly linked to the NASA missions—which means they are also particularly vulnerable to drops in funding, including the proposed $1.5 billion in cuts that have been proposed over the next five years. Caltech has a total of 9,000 employees, Chameau says; 5,000 work at JPL.

 He expects that the apparent success of the mission will encourage funders to continue funding JPL’s missions in the future. “It is already clear that it is energizing public support for NASA missions, and for space exploration. And we’re going to work very hard to ensure that there is sufficient funding and that the U.S. stays on the leading edge of space exploration. You are going to see some great research coming out, and that will do a lot to get public support.”

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