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Young scientist crosses fingers for Mars rover

Ryan Anderson’s graduate work helped researchers select Curiosity’s landing site in Gale Crater

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On Sunday night, NASA will attempt to land its newest, biggest rover in a massive crater on Mars — and if everything goes well, Ryan Anderson will get to find out whether he’s right or wrong.

Anderson’s studies of Gale Crater played a crucial role in helping scientists decide where to land the $2.5-billion Curiosity rover. Choosing Curiosity’s parking spot on the Red Planet involved whittling down dozens of candidate sites, based on what scientists guessed the rover could tell them about the environment and history at each site and at other places the rover could roam to.  

“It’s really exciting, but it’s also kind of terrifying,” says Anderson, 27 and just out of graduate school, of the rover’s impending arrival. “Now we’re actually going to land on these things I was describing and see if I was right. It’ll be great to know, but at the same time, it’ll be embarrassing if all my guesses were wrong.”

Now a postdoctoral fellow at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Research Center in Flagstaff, Ariz., Anderson began studying Gale Crater in 2007 while in graduate school at Cornell University. By 2010, he’d published a massive paper with faculty member Jim Bell describing the 150-kilometer-wide crater’s geological features and proposing possible rover routes. That work, plus discussions of pros and cons at landing site workshops, helped put the crater on the landing-site shortlist. “There were a bunch of other people who were interested in Gale Crater,” Anderson says. “But I was the only one who had a graduate student’s amount of time to look at it.”

As the rover prepares to begin drilling into Gale Crater’s rocks looking for signs of life-supporting environments, Anderson is stepping into the role of team member on the rover’s mission. He’ll be helping out with the rover’s ChemCam — an instrument that shoots lasers at rocks and analyzes their composition — and writing about his experiences in his blog, The Martian Chronicles. Writing, he says, has always wrestled with science for first place among his interests. “I was better at English than at math,” he recalls. “Finally I decided I was going to do a science major. I figured I could write things if I was a scientist, but couldn’t do science if I could just speak English.”

As for science, Mars holds a special appeal for him. “It’s Earthlike, but not quite,” Anderson says. “The more you look, the more you realize it’s really different.” Even though he admits to a few nerves about the rover’s upcoming landing, Anderson is also eager to see what Gale Crater looks like from the ground.  “The rover is landing at a place that I studied,” he says. “Which — that never happens.”

Further Reading

R.B. Anderson and J.F. Bell. Geologic mapping and characterization of Gale Crater and implications for its potential as a Mars Science Laboratory landing site. MARS, Vol. 5, Sept. 14, 2010, p. 76. Available online:
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Science News stories on the Curiosity rover:
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