From BSU To Mars: Boise Native Works On Curiosity Rover

Nov 12, 2012

This artist's concept depicts the rover Curiosity, of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, as it uses its Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument to investigate the composition of a rock surface. ChemCam fires laser pulses at a target and views the resulting spark with a telescope and spectrometers to identify chemical elements.
Credit NASA/JPL-Caltech / NASA Goddard Photo and Video/Flickr

He's a Boise State graduate. He's also one of the key people on a little project known as Curiosity.

Dan Isla is an electrical systems engineer with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  He helped assemble and launch NASA's Mars Rover. Now that it’s on the red planet, he helps operate the rover and put it through its paces. 

We originally talked with Isla last year, before the rover landed on Mars.  In this update, he tells Samantha Wright that was the highlight of his life, so far.

A. Oh, it was like nothing else.  It was the highlight of my career at that point.  It was an amazing night August 5 at 10:31 pm California time.  I was in the surface operations room during touchdown with all the other people who helped contribute to the mission and it was exhilarating, just the amount of energy we had, everyone’s many years of hard work finally paying off.  I remember it was one of the most satisfying feelings I’ve ever had, it was very good.

Q. So now you’re one of the operators of the Rover?

A. That’s right.  Now we’re driving on mars, we’re starting to do some in initial science, checkouts, we’re taking lots of gorgeous images.  It’s been a real exciting past 90 sols or so, yeah.

Q. What has Curiosity been up to, what kind of experiments have been going on?

A. We have been mostly doing checkouts of the system, so as soon as we landed, just like when you get a new computer from the store, you have to install the updates before you can use it, well, we had to update the software on the rover so that we could drive, use the robotic arm, and take samples.  So we’ve spending the last several sols making sure everything works and we have been driving a little bit too.  We went over to the East and did the first scooping activity, where we scooped some Martian sand and then brought it into the rover and did an analysis of the sample.

Q. What is a sol?

A. So we have days here on Earth and we use the term “sol” for Mars.  So when we talk about today, it’s to-sol, and yesterday is yester-sol.  A day on Mars is about 40 minutes longer than a day on Earth because the planet spins a little bit slower.

Q. The rover found some shiny silver bits along its path.  What were those?

A. I was actually working that day.  We were building the rover’s plan for that day and I came in and we had the plan all ready to go and then one of our science planners noticed in the image, hey what’s that shiny thing, it kind of looks like a screw.  Everyone stopped everything and we threw the plan out and built this whole new plan to take extra images of it and try and figure out what this was.  We wanted to make sure the rover wasn’t falling apart on use after we built it.  Fortunately, it wasn’t anything like that.  We took the MAHLI Hand Lens Imager, which is basically a camera on the end of the arm, brought it up really close to this project, and it’s just a little piece of plastic.  We think it’s a piece of cellophane or something from a cable wrap that came off during the landing event.”

Q. Last time when you spoke to KBSX, you talked about, what you called a very fun part of the rover, the laser.  Has Curiosity used its laser yet?

A. That is one of the coolest instruments we have on board, it’s a rock vaporizing laser.  I don’t know if it’s as cool as it sounds.  It’s not like Star Wars where we’re blowing up rocks on another planet.  What it does do, is that it’s mounted to the mast, that’s kind of the eyeball of the rover, and it shoots a high-powered laser at a rock and makes about a three millimeter hole in a rock and it vaporizes that surface and takes a picture of that plasma.  From that, you can figure out what that rock is made of and what its prime composition is and use that to decide whether or not it’s important.  Very early in the mission, while we were still updating software and getting things going, we we’re able actually to use the laser on a rock that was right at the landing site.  It was pretty exciting, being able to finally do that experiment.  It’s a very important tool we have.

Q. What’s the ultimate mission of Curiosity?

A. The goal of this mission is to determine if Mars, past or present, could be ever be habitable for life.  So based on all of the geo-chemistry and the mineralogy of this landing site, Gale Crater, we can determine how many million years ago was Mars every a habitable environment for life?  Were the conditions on the planet ever suitable for supporting life as we know it?  Some of the main things we know is life requires water.  So any evidence of flowing water that we can find from a past Mars is a very strong indicator that there’s a very good chance that life could have formed here.

Dan Isla went to Boise State University from 2005 to 2009 and studied electrical engineering and computer science.  He’ll be working with the Mars Rover well into next year.  He says the scientists are having a blast with all the data coming back from the red planet.

Copyright 2012 Boise State Public Radio