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Neighbors Growing Together | Nov 23, 2014

Fairfield learns about mission to Mars

By ANDY HALLMAN | Apr 24, 2013
Elsa Jensen holds a photograph of “Curiosity,” NASA’s rover that is studying and photographing Mars. Jensen helped develop Curiosity’s cameras, which she spoke about April 13 at the Argiro Student Center on the campus of Maharishi University of Management.

A woman who helped design the cameras that have taken photographs on Mars spoke to a few hundred people April 13 at the Argiro Student Center at Maharishi University of Management.

Elsa Jensen is the mission operations manager for Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego. She helped develop the science cameras on NASA’s Mars rover, “Curiosity.”

Jensen was born and raised in Denmark. She has had an interest in space exploration as long as she can remember. She spoke about how entering the space program seemed like an unrealistic goal in her youth, and she assumed she would have to find another outlet for her passion.

A schoolteacher once asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. She told him she wanted to go to space, but she added she knew little girls from Denmark don’t go to space.

“Why not?” the teacher responded, and with that Jensen embarked on a quest to fulfill her dream.

NASA launched the Curiosity rover from Earth in November 2011 and landed it on Mars in August 2012. The rover is a robot that is controlled from Earth. It can move on wheels, take photographs and collect data about Mars’s climate and geology by analyzing the chemical composition of rocks on the planet.

Jensen said people in the audience were probably curious why NASA sent a rover to Mars.

“We wanted to explore,” she said. “We wanted to reach farther than mankind has ever reached before.”

The rover’s intended destination was a crater in the middle of a mountain. This site was chosen because it would be the most interesting scientifically since the rover could study multiple layers of sediment in a small area. It is tasked with finding out if Mars could have supported life at one time.

Jensen said the camera her company designed for Mars takes photographs in red, green and blue pixels, just as many cameras do on Earth. She said the photographs on Mars appear comparable to those taken with a 2-megapixel camera.

Curiosity has a camera on an arm which it can extend 6 feet. The rover took a series of pictures of itself with its arm extended. Jensen and her crew pieced those photos together to get a self-portrait of Curiosity without its arm in the picture, making it appear someone or something else took the photo.

Jensen’s work with the rover has produced a few stressful situations, none more stressful than what has been dubbed the “seven minutes of terror.” That is the length of time between Curiosity’s entry into the Martian atmosphere and when it touched down. That was when Curiosity was most likely to crash.

The first problem Curiosity encountered was the heat. Curiosity descended to the Martian surface in a protective heat shell because the friction of traveling through the atmosphere produced a temperature of 3,800 degrees Fahrenheit.

The other problem Curiosity faced was speed. The spacecraft was traveling 13,000 miles per hour upon entering the atmosphere. A parachute slowed the craft down to 200 miles per hour. Once Curiosity was two kilometers above the surface, it released its parachute and turned on a jetpack on its bottom side that allowed it to gradually descend. As it approached 20 meters above the surface, the rover itself was lowered on a tether from its jetpack so it did not land in the middle of the dust storm the jetpack had created.

Jensen not only told the audience about Curiosity’s descent but actually showed a video of it from the Mars Orbiter, an orbiting satellite 400 miles above the surface.

Jensen and her team members work according to Martian time instead of Earth time so they can be at their posts when the rover and orbiter are sending information back to Earth. A Martian day is slightly longer than an Earth day at 24 hours and 40 minutes.

NASA has made exciting discoveries about Mars because of Curiosity. Jensen said the rover has found key chemical ingredients such as carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, phosphorous and sulfur.

“The mineralogy indicates a long interaction with liquid water,” she said.

Jensen said she was able to manage the stress of her job through Transcendental Meditation, which she learned a week before Curiosity landed on Mars.

 

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