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Professor educates on Mars rovers

June 4, 2012

Dr. Eric Baumgartner, who worked for 10 years with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, spoke at the Armstrong Air and Space Museum on Sunday.

An area professor and a Mars rover engineer says a person only has one shot when it comes to designing rovers to study the red planet.

Dr. Eric Baumgartner, dean of the T.J. Smull College of Engineering and a professor of mechanical engineering at Ohio Northern University, was the guest speaker at the second installment in a series of public programs hosted by the Armstrong Air and Space Museum on Sunday.

“You’ve got one shot to make it right,” Baumgartner said. “It’s very different from designing a car or even a plane. Once it leaves Earth, you can’t touch it.”

Prior to teaching at ONU, Baumgartner worked for 10 years with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and he held a leadership position for the Mars Exploration Rover Project — where he worked with the Spirit and Opportunity rovers that toured Mars.

Baumgartner lived with so much trial and error when it cameto designing a rover to land on Mars.

“With rovers, there are so many things that have to go right so it can be successful,” Baumgartner said.

Currently, the Curiosity rover was launched in December 2011 and is scheduled to arrive on Mars on Aug. 6.

Curiosity is one of the larger spacecrafts that was sent to the planet, as it is the size of a mini-coupe, and will help with the studies of Mars and possibly help predict whether life on the red planet existed.

“Why does NASA spend money to look at Mars, one might ask,” Baumgartner began his presentation with on Sunday. “Well many people think it looked like Earth years ago.”

Mars, Earth’s sister planet, is now a dusty, desert environment, and Mars has been thought to be more Earth-like than other planets.

To study the planet, spacecrafts can be sent to Mars every 26 months.

“Every 26 months there is a window of opportunity for a launch to Mars, and the launch window opens up for two weeks,” Baumgartner said.

Baumgartner’s job was to work with scientists to build these rovers and have then tested and ready for launch during this time.

Baumgartner, who served as the driver for Opportunity, was able to command this spacecraft and tell it what to do.

Between taking photos, videos and collecting rock samples via pictures, the advancement in learning about this planet has escalated in the past 10 years.

The mission of each rover is to take scientific data and send it back to Earth. Although the rover cannot send back a physical sample, the rover is commanded to take pictures of the atmosphere.

Each rover sent to Mars is more advanced than the last, as the creators have been able to use trial and error to create the next one.

Craters are a popular spot for the rovers to land on, as the Opportunity rover landed in two spots — the meridiani planum, which was flat land, and the gusev crater, which is a crater that once held water.

Baumgartner said that they know that water was once present on the planet by studying the rocks.

“This was a big, big discovery from the Mars Exploration Rovers,” Baumgartner said of the discovery of water on the planet.

Rocks are formed from wave action, Baumgartner said. Sedimentologists also were brought in to study the findings.

Also, craters are a popular spot for the rovers to land in because the further the rover can go down, the older the land that scientists can observe and analyze.

While building rovers, Baumgartner said there were numerous tests that the rover had to go through on Earth before it was launched to Mars.

With previous rovers having a 90-day lifespan on the planet, Curiosity will be exploring the red planet for two years, once it lands on Mars in August.

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