SÃO PAULO, Brazil — In the two years the Curiosity Rover has spent roaming Mars, it's made some fascinating discoveries about the planet:
NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover used the camera at the end of its arm in April/May 2014 to take dozens of component images combined into this self-portrait.
- Mars has two types of water-rich minerals that create an electromagnetic power source, which could be used by a living organism.
- The water is deemed drinkable, if you are the adventurous sort.
- There is carbon dioxide snow on the planet.
- The radiation levels encountered while traveling to Mars exceed the lifetime allowable for humans -- meaning the trip would not be safe for humans without additional protection.
Luke Dubord, Avionics Systems Engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the Mars Curiosity Mission, shared these details with a rapt audience of embedded design engineers during his keynote talk at ESC Brazil on August 27. These discoveries are all the more remarkable given that only 50% of all Mars landings to date have been successful.
A throng of engineers surrounded Luke Dubord, Avionics Systems Engineer for NASA (facing camera) for more than an hour after his keynote speech at ESC Brazil on the challenges of engineering a mission to Mars.
While Curiosity has exceeded expectations for every aspect of its mission, one thing it will not do is investigate the interior of Mars. In fact, this type of exploration has never been done on any planet -- ever. But finding evidence of activity such as earthquakes -- or more aptly in this case Marsquakes -- could provide important clues on how the planet was formed.
"We now know a lot of interesting details about the surface of Mars, but we don't know anything about what's beneath the surface," said Dubord. That will change with the next mission to Mars in 2016, for which Dubord's team is partnering with NASA's Planetary Science Division to do an interior exploration of the planet.
Scheduled to launch in October 2016, the mission will deploy an instrument package designed to perform seismic investigations. The instrument also features a "mole," which is basically a high-tech hammer that will pound its way three meters down beneath the surface to investigate material properties at that depth.
NASA is also planning a second Mars mission in 2020 based on the design of the Curiosity Rover, which featured many never-been-tried before technologies such as the Skycrane Transporter. In July, NASA announced the instruments that will be included as part of the mission's payload.
"We're having a good run," Dubord said, noting that concluding with Curiosity, NASA has completed four consecutive, successful launches to Mars. "Of course, with a 50% failure rate, we are progressing towards the mean, which maybe suggests we now have something to worry about."
Dubord pointed out that coping with systems complexity is the biggest challenge for engineers. "Most of the stuff that we are building basically consists of systems of systems, the chips themselves are systems on a chip and they are interacting with other systems," he said. "That breeds complexity."
To emphasize the point, Dubord said that he has never discovered a bug that was totally obvious. "Just finding the bug is the hard part, and the more complex the system, the more difficult it gets."
Compounding the problem is the fact that very large teams work together on these systems. "Engineering is one of the few fields in which your success depends on the success of others," said Dubord. "What I mean is that the radar guy just has to trust that the parachute guy did his job, just like the parachute guy has to trust that the radar guy did his job."
— Karen Field, Director of Content, EE Live and EE Times