Mars scientist comes home – but the mission goes on
A scientist who was part of the team which landed a robot on Mars has returned home after three months working with Nasa in California.
Dr John Bridges will continue his exploration of Mars from the comfort of his laboratory at the University of Leicester.
He has been at the Jet Propulsion Lab, in Pasadena, where he was one of a large team working to determine whether Mars was once a habitable place for microbial life.
He will now carry on probing the Martian environment from the University of Leicester's Space Research Centre.
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He said: "It's good to be back at the university and in familiar surroundings but, of course, the mission goes on and there is still a lot of work to do.
"We're now entering the remote data operations phase, which means all those who were in Pasadena have gone back to their home institutions and we'll be working across six time zones.
"Our goals are practically the same, but it's going to take a little more time and patience to get the results we want."
Curiosity landed on the Red Planet on August 5.
It has beamed back vast amounts of data from rock, soil and atmospheric samples taken using an arsenal of hi-tech equipment.
Dr Bridges said: "Over the first 90 Mars days it was useful to be able to talk to other members of the team, but it's not practical to continue for any protracted amount of time.
"But the aim remains the same – to test for habitability, trying to understand whether there was flowing water or other conditions able to support life on Mars."
In 2011, Dr Bridges was selected from 140 scientists who applied for a role working on the Nasa Mars mission.
He arrived in California on August 1.
"It was a fascinating working environment in Pasadena, seeing the project right through from the entry to the landing to turning everything on," said Dr Bridges.
"The first few images of Mount Sharp were beautiful and then we started moving little by little towards it, which is the ultimate goal.
"We switched on the ChemCam for the first time – it was a fascinating experience seeing it all unfold."
Curiosity has an estimated two-year lifespan.
The mission will continue until the robot is no longer capable of sending back information.
"Another Mars rover, Opportunity, has been on the planet since 2004 and is still functioning, so we'll keep analysing whatever Curiosity sends back until it fails," said Dr Bridges.
"Hopefully, it will go for a considerable period of time."
The latest data to be sent back is the analysis of methane in the atmosphere.
"The levels are much smaller than we first thought – there are vanishingly small parts of methane in the Mars atmosphere," Dr Bridges said.
"Earth spectrometers were giving us much larger readings than we are getting from Curiosity, but that's one of the advantages of being on the surface."
Scientists were interested in the methane levels because they could be associated with microbial activity at some point in the planet's history.
Read Dr Bridges's blog at:
www2.le.ac.uk/departments/ physics/research/src/res/ planetary-science/mslblog