New Rover "Curiosity" Will Contribute to Study of the Red Planet

August 8, 2012

Earlier this week, NASA scientists celebrated the landing of the Mars rover Curiosity. The rover is expected to provide valuable information about the planet’s surface–and the data it collects may also play a role in some Wellesley College classrooms and labs in the not too distant future.

Wesley Andrés Watters, assistant professor of astronomy, uses data gathered by the Mars Exploration Rovers in his classes. Though not a member of the science team on Curiosity, Watters has been part of the Mars Exploration Rover science team since shortly after they landed in 2004.

Watters' research concerns processes shaping the surface and interior of rocky planets like Mars. He uses data collected by the Mars rovers to learn about impact cratering and the role of water on early Mars. Most recently he has served as “geology lead” on Opportunity, leading last year's exploration of a crater called Santa Maria. His work involving two Wellesley undergraduates this summer, Lynn Geiger '13 and Michaela Fendrock '15, combines rover and orbiter observations to extend our knowledge of how the Martian surface has evolved over time.

According to NASA press materials, Curiosity will analyze dozens of samples drilled from rocks or scooped from the ground as it explores with greater range than any previous Mars rover. Unlike earlier rovers, Curiosity carries equipment to gather samples of rocks and soil, process them and distribute them to onboard test chambers inside analytical instruments.

Over the past year, Watters has integrated updates from the Opportunity rover into his ASTR 100: Life in the Universe class. The course, which uses material from many different disciplines, including geology, biology, physics, and astronomy, explores questions like, “What are the conditions for life elsewhere,” and “Where else might we find life in the cosmos?” Curiosity's mission will probably shed light on these questions, by searching for organic molecules in the Martian soils and the debris from fresh impact craters, and by investigating a mountain of rock layers that will tell us about conditions in Mars' ancient past.

ASTR 100 students are not the only ones who will learn about new discoveries from Curiosity's journey through Gale crater. Watters also teaches ASTR/GEOS 223: Planetary Climates, which explores the evolution of the climate system on four worlds in our solar system: Earth, Mars, Venus, and Saturn's moon Titan. In Spring 2013 he will also teach ASTR 203/GEOS 213: Planetary Geology, about the character and evolution of the amazingly diverse inner planets like Mercury and Mars and outer moons like Ganymede and Io.

Wellesley College offers majors in Astronomy, Geosciences, and Astrophysics.