Curiosity - French-U.S cooperation - Interview with CNES President Yannick d’Escatha and JPL’s Director Charles Elachi in CnesMag (July 2012)

Unprecedented technology for Mars

Laboratory in the Mars exploration programme and what advances is it expected to afford?

Yannick d’Escatha: The Curiosity rover on the Mars Science Laboratory mission is without doubt the most sophisticated craft ever sent to perform in-situ analysis of Martian soil. And the presence of clays on Mars, identified by the French OMEGA instrument on ESA’s Mars Express satellite, is probably the most important finding of the decade regarding the red planet. Because these sedimentary rocks prove that Mars was a wetter and warmer place in its early history, which means that life could have appeared at that time. In fact, all the preselected candidate landing sites for MSL contain clays. Gale Crater, the chosen site, also has a 5,000-metre-high mountain at its centre where layers of clay and sulphates have been identified. These are two sedimentary rocks that correspond to two successive eras on Mars. MSL’s suite of instruments aims to identify carbon molecules of interest to exobiologists.

Charles Elachi: The last two decades of intensive Mars exploration have revealed its stunning geological and mineralogical diversity and allowed us to piece together an understanding of how its climate and environment have evolved over time. Key discoveries include broad exposures of hydrated clay and sulphate minerals, as well as evidence for massive erosion, transport and deposition of sediments pointing to the widespread and sustained presence of water over time. The Mars Science Laboratory brings the Curiosity rover to Gale Crater, where it will explore a five-kilometrethick mound of stratified rock, containing diverse indicators of past aqueous environments, to seek an understanding of Mars’ ability to support microbial life over its early history. The science investigation is not aimed at detecting evidence of life but understanding when conditions and ingredients needed by microbes may have been present, if life had ever evolved on the red planet. Beyond the search for habitable environments, Curiosity’s mission is also aimed at understanding which subset of those habitable environments may have been conducive to preservation of reduced organic compounds for study by future missions.

What respective roles have CNES and JPL played in the development of this mission?

YdE: CNES is very proud to be involved with the ChemCam instrument, which was built in partnership with the IRAP astrophysics and planetology research institute in Toulouse, led by Dr. Sylvestre Maurice, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), where Dr. Roger Wien is the instrument’s principal investigator. At LANL and JPL’s request, CNES was delighted to work with them to conduct ChemCam operations on Mars. Analysis of rocks and soils by this instrument within a radius of a few metres of the rover will be vital in deciding which rocks to sample and probe in more detail with other instruments like SAM, for example. The LATMOS atmospheres, environments and space observations laboratory in Guyancourt, with support from CNES, supplied the gas-phase chromatograph for SAM. Our involvement in these two key instruments has mobilized an unprecedented effort by the agency’s teams for this Mars exploration mission.

Ch.E: The NASA-CNES collaboration is prominent on two of Curiosity’s investigations: the Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument and the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite. ChemCam brings laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy for the first time to Mars, allowing rapid and remote identification of rock and soil composition. Curiosity will use ChemCam to survey the composition along its traverses and to identify targets for further analysis. The SAM suite is key to one of Curiosity’s primary goals: to analyse the chemical and isotopic composition of the atmosphere and volatiles extracted from solid samples, including the search for organic compounds. The ChemCam French collaboration is from IRAP in Toulouse. IRAP has coordinated, developed and delivered the ChemCam mast unit containing its laser, telescope and camera. In the case of SAM, one of the three instruments in the suite, the Gas Chromatograph, was designed to resolve complex mixtures of organic compounds into separate components. It was developed and fabricated at the SA aeronomy research laboratory (now LATMOS). After the initial 90 sols (1 sol = 24 hours and 39 minutes on Earth) of the mission when all investigators are at JPL, part of the ChemCam and SAM operations teams will be located at a shared operations facility (FIMOC) in Toulouse.

The longstanding cooperation between CNES and JPL is continuing with new missions in development or in preparation. What are these missions and what do you hope they will accomplish?

YdE: Following on from MSL, CNES is closely involved in the InSight mission to land a seismometer on Mars to study its inner structure. CNES has been working with Philippe Lognonné at the Institut de Physique de Globe to develop a space-rated seismometer that is without doubt one of the best in the world. A CNES team is coordinating fabrication of this instrument with various partners, including JPL. We really hope this mission will be selected by NASA this summer. We also have a smaller involvement in the MAVEN mission to study atmospheric escape on Mars, to be launched late 2013. And we are working with JPL to study our Earth, for example in the fields of space oceanography and hydrology with TOPEX/Poseidon, the Jason series of satellites and soon SWOT, and in atmospheric and climate research through sharing of science data to measure greenhouse gases from space.

Ch E: The CNES-JPL cooperation has more than four decades of excellent collaboration in Earth and space exploration. Together we have “created” the field of space oceanography with TOPEX/Poseidon and the Jason series of missions. Today we are planning together to develop the next-generation Space Water and Ocean Topography mission (SWOT), and we have teamed with Germany on an exciting mission called InSight to map the interior of Mars. In addition, we are working with French scientists in France at CNES and at JPL on ideas for future missions and instruments to continue the excellent collaboration between our two organizations and countries.

Interview published in CNESMAG, CNES French spacial agency magazine (july 2012)

Curiosity - A piece of France on Mars (August 2012)