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Robotic Exploration of Mars

December 4, 2017

During assembly on Monday, December 4, Dr. Ray Arvidson, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor in Wash U's Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and a faculty fellow with the McDonnell Center for the Spaces Sciences, spoke to students about how ~ and why ~ we explore the planets. His presentation kicked off Computer Science Week.

Arvidson juxtaposed three planets:

Earth, which is inhabitable because of its size, its distance from the sun and the equilibrium between its emitted and consumed gases ... where there is ample water  ~ as liquid, gas and ice ~ and where the atmosphere holds in sufficient heat to support sophisticated life.

Venus, which is closer to the sun and where there is a runaway greenhouse effect ... where it is so hot, it snows metal ... where one of the only ways to take samples might be to lower an extraction balloon and then raise it back up where it is cooler.

Mars, which today is super cool, with no water, only ice ... where there is evidence ~ ancient stream beds, lakes, deltas ~ that it used to be warm and wet and could possibly have been inhabited on a microbe level.

Arvidson said there is a lot of international interest around Mars and spoke about various rovers and landers, including Curiosity which he hopes will be able to drill by 2020 and send samples to earth for years and years of analysis. In response to a question, he said while limited habitation of Mars might be possible within a couple hundred years, we really explore the solar system to better understand earth.

After assembly, Arvidson was heading back to the Wash U campus to work with other scientists and engineers  on Curiosity's early exploration of Mount Sharp (on Mars). As the rover moves uphill, it will go from old rocks to young rocks, hopefully unlocking some of the mysteries of Mars.


Arvidson received a Ph.D. from Brown University in 1974. He is presently the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor Washington University in St. Louis, where he focuses on teaching and research about current and past environments on the Earth, Mars and Venus. He is a fellow of the McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences. He has been instrumental in development and implementation of both orbital and landed missions to the planets, including participation in the Magellan Radar Orbiter Mission to Venus, Team Leader for the Viking Lander Imaging System on Mars, member of the Project Science Group for the Mars Global Surveyor Mission, Deputy Principal Investigator for the highly successful Mars Rover Missions (Spirit and Opportunity), the Robotic Arm Investigator for the Mars Phoenix Lander Mission, Co- Investigator for the hyper-spectral mappers OMEGA (Mars Express orbiter) and CRISM (Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter), and a Science Team Member for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity Rover that landed on Mars in August 2012. He is the Director of the NASA Planetary Data System Geosciences Node, making available ~300 terabytes of NASA data to the worldwide research community.