The pinpoint landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars, where it will meander across 12 miles of the red planet’s surface over the next two years, has revived interest in the exploration of our solar system – and beyond.
Unlocking those secrets and learning how it affects our planet is a job that Wisconsin researchers and companies are well-equipped to handle.
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Direct Wisconsin ties to the Curiosity landing begin with Adam Steltzner, a UW-Madison engineering Ph.D. who led the “Entry, Descent and Landing” team that figured how to bring the rover from a speed of 13,200 miles per hour to a safe stop on the surface. Surviving the mission’s “seven minutes of terror” was Steltzner’s challenge.
Marquette University graduate Kathryn Weiss monitored the flight software and avionics of the spacecraft as it entered the Martian atmosphere.
UW-Green Bay researcher Aileen Yingst, the director of the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium, is the deputy principal investigator for Curiosity’s Mars Hand Lens Imager camera. It’s an instrument so powerful it can return images of individual grains of sand on the planet’s surface. Yingst has already begun analyzing images returned to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.
Beyond the Curiosity mission itself, there are many other examples of why Wisconsin’s aerospace research base has built global credentials.
The UW-Madison Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies is the leading source of satellite weather data in the world. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently renewed a $60-million contract with the institute.
The UW-Madison College of Engineering has longstanding ties into NASA and space science. That includes its Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics and its work around development of helium-3 energy technologies.
The Madison campus also has a Space Science and Engineering Center as well as a highly-rated astronomy department.
The university is also home to the multi-national IceCube project. Completed in late 2010 at the South Pole, IceCube is the world’s largest neutrino observatory. It was built at the cost of $271 million over 10 years to find extremely high-energy neutrinos – tiny subatomic particles – originating from supernova explosions, gamma-ray bursts and black holes. Scientists believe it will greatly expand knowledge of astrophysics and “dark matter.”
Yingst’s work at UW-Green Bay is indicative of other work throughout the UW System. Researchers at UW-Stout, UW-Oshkosh, UW-Platteville and UW-Milwaukee are also engaged in aerospace R&D through projects as diverse as rocket fuel propellants to sensors, composites and even clothing.
An example of a successful private contractor with NASA is Orbital Technologies of Madison, which has won more than $150 million in grants and contracts over time. It’s a prime example of R&D yielding products and jobs.
Look for the data sent home by the Curiosity rover to be examined by scientists in Wisconsin, who will help analyze what it means to people on earth – and the future of space exploration.
With manned missions to Mars possible, finding water, energy and carbon on the planet is essential for determining whether the planet ever supported life. Curiosity’s landing site of Gale Crater has rock formations that suggest water once flowed through the area. The rover’s science kit, including laser and X-ray instruments, will study the soil for bio-signatures and take atmospheric and radiation measurements.
From the dawn of the space program in the 1960s until now, Wisconsin scientists and astronauts have played a major role. Who knows? Maybe there’s a bit of Badger red on the red planet.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.