Dr Charles Elachi interview: Mission to Mars

The man behind the Curiosity rover landing on Mars on why the billions spent on US space exploration is money well spent
By Ed Attwood
Sun 23 Dec 2012 10:15 AM

Where were you on the morning of 6 August this year? Chances are you were among the millions around the world watching the live feed of NASA’s Curiosity rover as it touched down on Mars. To say that the landing, which was seen by 50m in the US alone on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)’s website, was tense is an understatement; after making its 450 million kilometre journey from Earth to Mars, the rover had to decelerate from a speed of 20,000 km/h to zero in just fifteen minutes to effect a safe touchdown onto the Red Planet’s surface. It was by far the most complicated attempt to land on another planet that humans have so far attempted.

Dr Charles Elachi, JPL’s Lebanese-born director, puts perhaps the most astonishing scientific achievement of the century into context.

“After that journey, we had to land within a circle of about one kilometre, because we needed to land in a very specific spot,” he says. “That’s the same as if I hit a golf ball from Los Angeles to Dubai, and it has to come straight in the cup — that’s how accurate we had to be. And to make it just a little bit more challenging, the cup is moving at high speed.”

The tension surrounding the landing was ramped up not only by the fourteen-minute time delay that it took radio signals to beam back from Mars, but also due to the fact that the engineers and scientists at JPL could do nothing to affect the outcome once the landing process had been put in place.

In the end, of course, the landing went completely by the book. The JPL website received just over 1.8bn hits during the course of the next day, and President Barack Obama lauded the touchdown as “an unprecedented feat of technology that will stand as a point of national pride far into the future”.

For Elachi, who is visiting Dubai to speak at the Arabian Business Forum, the success of Curiosity marks just another step in an astonishing journey that has taken him from the Lebanese town of Zahle via university in France to Pasadena, where the JPL is headquartered.

One of NASA’s field centres, JPL’s brief is not only to build and operate planetary spacecraft, but to conduct astronomic investigations into star systems, as well as operating the Deep Space Network, the global communications system that allows scientists here on Earth to talk to their spacecraft.

Curiosity’s arrival on Mars was not NASA’s first landing on the planet; two far smaller rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, touched down on Mars in 2003, with the latter still reporting back to Earth. But Curiosity’s brief is of a far greater magnitude. Roughly about the size of a small car, the rover is perhaps best described as a “mobile chemist”; not only can it collect samples, but it can also heat them in its onboard oven, allowing scientists to see what kind of material has been emitted.

That ability has already paid off. In early December, samples from a site called Rocknest showed complex chemical compounds in the Martian soil. If organic compounds are located, along with the presence of water, then the building blocks of life could be present on Mars.

The potential presence of life on other planets is one of JPL’s primary missions, says Elachi. When asked whether he thinks that life could exist on Mars, he certainly isn’t ruling it out.

“I would be pleasantly surprised, but we don’t know for sure,” he says. “There might not be life on the surface; it could be beneath the surface or it could be extinct. But that’s one of the key objectives for our exploration — in our solar system is there anyway that life could have started?”

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So far, NASA has identified several possible locations. Other than Mars, where the curved nature of some of the rock formations clearly points to the process of water erosion in the past, the agency also thinks that there are liquid oceans under a layer of ice on Europa, one of Jupiter’s satellites. And on spacecraft flybys of Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons, scientists have witnessed colossal geysers spewing water out into the atmosphere.

“If we find life on other planets, that could give us an indication as to whether our kind of life is common — is everything based on DNA and carbon?” Elachi says. “Other kinds of life might be based on a different kind of structure. So that would give us insight into our own biological evolution.

“And then beyond our solar system the key objective is to find out whether life on other planets exists,” he adds. “One the one hand you would say, of course, since there are so many stars and the laws of physics and chemistry are just the same. And therefore planets should exist that are similar to our planet.”

Right now, Curiosity is searching out suitable locations to drill for more samples at a site called Yellowknife Bay. And after that, it will take on its primary target, an attempt to climb up Mount Sharp, or Aeolis Mons — no mean feat, considering that the mountain is not that much shorter than Kilimanjaro. But Elachi and the JPL team are already hard at work preparing for new missions. In 2020, NASA is planning to send another rover to Mars to capitalise on Curiosity’s success, and perhaps store samples so that they can be returned to Earth in future.

The big question, of course, is that of manned missions. Although there isn’t a specific programme for sending humans to Mars, tentative plans are being outlined. Given that the best window for a mission, or when the planets are closest together, is every eighteen years, the next target date is obvious.

“We are thinking that by about 2036 we will probably send a human,” says Elachi. “That is a big challenge, because it takes nine months to get there and nine months to get back. Just imagine you are sending three or four people for eight months, think how much food, garbage and water they will require, and so on. So it’s a big engineering challenge, but it’s feasible.”

When it comes to human exploration further afield, however, Elachi says that the restraints of modern technology are such that manned missions will have to wait.

“Anything in our solar system you can get to,” he says. “When we look at neighbouring stars, what we will be able to do with our telescopes in future is to take images of planets around them, and by taking those pictures we will be able to determine if they actually have an atmosphere — whether that might be oxygen or methane, for example — and what sort of temperatures are there.

“Actual travel, I would say, is unlikely in the near future unless there is a major breakthrough in technology, and that would take many, many years,” he adds. “In this business, you have to be patient.”

That’s not to say that JPL is not working hard to change all that. According to Elachi, the current method of powering spacecraft, chemical propulsion, has just about reached its limit. Instead, the agency is testing electric propulsion — which involves taking gases like xenon, ionizing them, and then placing them in an electric field, allowing atoms to move at extremely high speeds — on a spacecraft called Dawn’s mission to the asteroid Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres. Other methods that are being explored include solar sails, which have been tested by the Russians and the Japanese, as well as NASA.

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Needless to say, all of the technological breakthroughs and the missions have come at considerable cost. The Curiosity mission alone is believed to have cost $2.5bn, and that investment has been made during a period in which America has faced a tough economic climate. In all, US spending on its space programme is worth about $18bn every year.

Then again, the benefits of that spending are everywhere to be seen. The technology that created the now-ubiquitous cellphone was originally developed by NASA to allow the agency to communicate with its spacecraft. The same is the case for cellphone cameras; NASA even gets a small royalty payment for each product that is shipped.

“When we were developing that technology, we didn’t know it would have those benefits, we were just doing it for scientific exploration,” Elachi recalls. “In fact one of the unique things I find in the US is that we do major investments just in gaining knowledge. We believe that gaining knowledge and education in the long-term will pay off, irrelevant of what the investment is.”

As regards funding, the JPL executive director also points out that he thinks the landscape has changed, especially post-Curiosity.

“I would say the tone has changed significantly between 5 August and 6 August [the date of the Curiosity landing],” he smiles. “And the main reason is that it has become even more apparent how excited the public is by this kind of endeavour. When I talk to politicians, I tell them that 50m voters were watching and that gets their attention very quickly.

“I am also delighted that there was an amazing response, particularly in the US and worldwide. It also shows something positive, because everything these days is negative, either about the economy or wars, and this is an example of something uplifting and positive, especially for young people,” Elachi adds.

As a result, and even though US federal budgets are tight, he is hopeful that there will still be strong support for what he and his team are trying to do.

“And, in a sense, it is a positive thing that reflects on the US…people all around the world look at the US as an exciting, forward-thinking nation, and as we share with all the world what we are doing, it’s not a selfish thing,” Elachi points out. “You can look at it as part of American diplomacy, in additional to the innovative and scientific benefits you get from it. In the end, I usually tell people from wherever they are in the world that it’s not my rover — we’re just the team that built it. It’s yours as well.”

Curiosity: Quick facts

Cruise vehicle dimensions (cruise stage and aeroshell with rover and descent stage inside)

Diameter: 14 feet, 9 inches (4.5 meters); height: 9 feet, 8 inches (3 meters)

Rover name: Curiosity

Rover dimensions: Length: 9 feet, 10 inches (3.0 meters)

(not counting arm); width: 9 feet, 1 inch (2.8 meters); height at top of mast: 7 feet (2.1 meters); arm length: 7 feet (2.1 meters); wheel diameter: 20 inches (0.5 meter)

Mass: 8,463 pounds (3,893 kilograms) total at launch, consisting of 1,982-pound (899-kilogram) rover; 5,293-pound (2,401-kilogram) entry, descent and landing system (aeroshell plus fueled descent stage); and 1,188-pound (539-kilogram) fueled cruise stage

Power for rover: Multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator and lithium-ion batteries

Science payload: 165 pounds (75 kilograms) in 10 instruments: Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer, Chemistry and Camera, Chemistry and Mineralogy, Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons, Mars Descent Imager, Mars Hand Lens Imager, Mast Camera, Radiation Assessment Detector, Rover Environmental Monitoring Station, and Sample Analysis at Mars.

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