Ohio University Professor Keeps Close Eye On Mars

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Ohio University Professor Keith Milam is getting a little more sleep these days – now that NASA's "Curiosity" rover has safely landed on the red planet.

"I was relieved.  Having participated in other rover missions I know what a challenge it is to get these things on the ground."

"The technology that was being utilized for Curiosity hadn't been tested outside our facilities on Earth so this was the first time so this system was really flight tested.  I think we were really all holding our breath and crossing our fingers that this rover would land on Mars.  We were quite excited … when that happened."

The mission is of particular interest to Milam who helped land two other rovers, "Spirit" and "Opportunity" on Mars in 2004. 

His major task was mapping a landing site for those rovers and then working on the daily decisions of where to send the robotic vehicles.

"I was tasked with mapping Gusev Crater.  After "Spirit" and "Opportunity" landed I participated in deciding where the rovers needed to go,  what kind of rocks we needed to analyze and uploading and downloading data from an instrument known as mini test."

Some of that work was conducted from Athens, Ohio at Ohio University, some at the University of Tennessee, and some at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

"It used to be we had to be there on site but nowadays we can operate from anywhere."

While the most exciting part of the mission for Milam came with this week's successful landing of the rover, the information gathered is something he says he and the scientific community at-large will eagerly await. 

Milam says one of the big questions for Mars is how it might tell us more about Earth.

"Here you've got a planet that may have had standing lakes, may have had an ocean, probably had flowing streams at one time.  You've had a huge water reservoir that is now locked up in the subsurface. It's frozen in something called the cryosphere."

"How did that happen? What went wrong for Mars? How come it was much more earthlike in its history and now it's essentially a polar ice desert?"

If "Curiosity" works as advertised it should be sending back data for years.

"These rovers can go for so long.  This rover has a  R-T-G radio termo-nuclear generator. It's not powered with solar panels like "Spirit" and "Opportunity." 

"I've heard some estimates being whispered that this could be in operation five to ten years from now."

If "Opportunity" is any indication, "Curiosity" will have a long lifespan.  "Opportunity" is still rolling around Mars sending back data. 

The fact that there are two vehicles on the red planet might cause some to wonder if there's a possibility of a first-extraterrestrial car crash.

"No they're on different sides of the planet, they're too far apart.  They couldn't get to each other if they wanted to."