While most professors and students are adjusting to the schedule of the new year, one professor is adjusting to Mars time, a day 40 minutes longer than our own. Ralph Milliken, assistant professor of geological sciences, is spending most of fall semester as a member of the science team on the NASA Mars Science Laboratory Rover mission.
Living on Mars time "takes some getting used to," Milliken said, adding that he uses blackout curtains to help him adjust to the constantly shifting schedule of a different planet. Milliken's team is also learning to manage the nature of a rover mission, he said, where scientists must process new data daily to decide on a plan for the coming day.
"It's a rapid turnaround," he said, adding that with only a couple of hours to make tactical decisions for the rover, the science team doesn't have the same timeline as other scientists. "It's tricky getting used to that mentality," Milliken said.
The rover Curiosity landed on Mars in the Gale Crater Aug. 6 as part of a mission to determine whether the planet ever had a climate that could have supported life.
Milliken is spending most of this semester working in the jet propulsion lab for the rover, located in Los Angeles, though the goal is for him to be acquainted with the operation mechanisms enough to work remotely after around 90 days, he said.
From the technical difficulties of landing a rover to daily monitoring of incoming data, there has been no shortage of tasks for the entire team. Though the science team will work with other planning and engineering crews throughout the course of the mission, the scientists meet with each other at the end of each day to present what they have found in the newly acquired data, Milliken said. His team is composed of around 400 other scientists who hold a variety of roles.
Because this mission is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that yields fascinating results, the scientists work most days and have a hard time leaving, Milliken said.
Milliken said he is most interested in the images the rover has been able to provide. He has been studying views of the mountainous rover site for five or six years and now has a unique surface vantage point of this area.
With this added view, Milliken said he is gaining "a better sense of the three-dimensional aspect of the rocks." With three dimensions, the team can understand how the rocks that make up the mountain were actually deposited - an advantage over using two-dimensional images.
One thing the team hopes to learn is whether Mars had a wet climate, Milliken said, adding that the team is using a mountainous study site which could hold records of the drying of the planet in each layer of the mountain. The bottom rocks may have some evidence of water channels while higher layers do not, Millken said, evidence of climate change over time.
"As you march up the layers, you effectively march through time," Milliken said.
The site at which the rover landed in early August was one of the four final possible landing areas, Milliken said. A vast scientific society came together to propose and debate upon the landing sites, he said adding that a list of 50 or 60 was then narrowed down to four.
For other scientists, different sites held more potential to examine habitability than Gale Crater. John Mustard, professor of Geological Sciences, said he would have favored the Mawarth Vallis, a site he said better captures the processes involving water in the early phases of Mars."If life ever started on Mars, that is where you would have wanted to be," he said. Despite this potential, this site is "not an easy place to understand," he said.
Mustard is not part of the rover team, but he has been involved with Mars exploration since 1990 and helped with some initial planning stages of Milliken's mission.
"I don't think (Gale Crater) is the place to go" to study habitability, Mustard said, adding that the layers on the mountain might be due to wind and dust, rather than water.
Because the mission was funded by NASA, the site search committee wanted the mission to inform a larger national community as opposed to a smaller scientific community.
Milliken said he is very enthusiastic about the site, which has fantastic potential for exploring habitability on Mars. The site is also visually stunning - the rover inches toward the towering mountain and then climbs up the cliffs to look for signs of life, providing a more compelling story each day, he said.