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Michigan helps NASA go to Mars: UM scientists and the "Curiosity" rover

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The search for life on Mars takes a giant leap forward this weekend, and University of Michigan scientists are part of the mission. 

By now you’ve probably heard about the unmanned rover called "Curiosity." Set to land on the red planet Sunday night, it’s NASA’s most ambitious robotic operation yet. A science lab on wheels, the rover will scour Mars for any sign the plant could support life.

But first, it has to land safely. And that’s no small feat, considering it will enter the atmosphere going 13,000 mph and has to slow to zero in just seven minutes (nicknamed NASA’s “seven minutes of terror,” given how much could go wrong).

If NASA can pull this off, they’ll have University of Michigan scientists to thank.

A grad student at U of M, Manish Mehta, did his thesis on how the rockets plumes will interact with the Martian surface.

"How big of a crater could that form?” asked Mehta.  “If the crater's quite big, you know, that could cause problems when the spacecraft landed. It'll have a different environment than what it was expecting to see. And the second is dust lifting. Like, are we gonna sandblast the rover?”

To do this kind of high-stakes testing, Mehta used a little creativity: he simulated Martian terrain with eighty bags of crushed walnut shells dumped into a sandbox.  

"We used ground up walnut shells that matched the same particle sizes of what you would expect on Mars. And we had this simulated rocket engine that would be fired into this box of sand. We were just trying to observe the dynamics," he said.

Michigan scientists will also help NASA identify any signs of life the rover may find. They’ll have awatch party Sunday night in Ann Arbor. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.