NASA engineer tells La Jolla audience how exploring Mars helps humanity understand that world and ours
The names of the Mars rovers reflect key human traits.
Spirit, opportunity, curiosity and perseverance are words used to describe essential human qualities, NASA engineer Kobie Boykins says.
Not coincidentally, they’re also the names of rovers that have landed on Mars in the past two decades, carrying out missions that reflect humans’ indomitable spirit, Boykins said.
He made his remarks during “Nat Geo Live: Exploring Mars with Kobie Boykins,” a Nov. 3 presentation that launched this season’s La Jolla Music Society Speaker Series at the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in La Jolla.
Boykins, principal mechanical engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, spoke for nearly 90 minutes about NASA’s Martian discoveries culled during several rover missions.
Boykins’ work on Mars exploration, which began with the Pathfinder rover in 1997, has helped him win a NASA exceptional service medal.
He also has worked on the rovers Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity and Perseverance. He said the images and data they’ve returned — and the ability to collect the information — make space exploration “so amazing.”
Journey to Mars: Spirit and Opportunity
Spirit and Opportunity were launched in 2003. Each took about seven months, traveling at 16,000 mph, to reach the upper atmosphere of Mars.
“Literally burning a hole” in the atmosphere, each rover, encased in a shield against the 1,600-degree centigrade heat, then began a process of “reverse origami,” Boykins said.
The rover threw out a supersonic parachute, slowing it down, and lost the heat shield. The rover was then lowered via the parachute and airbags were inflated, allowing the rover to bounce to the surface under gravity less than 40 percent that of Earth.
The airbags were then pulled in and lander petals were unfolded, followed by solar panels.
The front wheels were among the last parts to deploy, preparing the rover to drive off and begin exploring, Boykins said.
Once on Mars, Spirit and Opportunity proved there was once water on Mars, one of the missions’ principal goals.
Opportunity, which explored years longer than Spirit, found a mineral called hematite, Boykins said. It also discovered something surprising, he said — a solitary rock that was not from Mars.
“This is a meteorite from somewhere else,” Boykins said. The find sparked much conversation among scientists who wanted to study the rock and engineers who were unsure of its makeup and therefore couldn’t predict the consequences of closer examination.
The rock was left unstudied, as “we didn’t have the right scientific investigation materials or scientific apparatus” on the rovers to assess it, he said.
Technology improvements: Curiosity and Perseverance
In 2011, NASA launched Curiosity, “a different rover with a different rover mission,” Boykins said.
“Now that we knew there was liquid water on the surface of Mars, could Mars have supported life?” he said. “Does Mars have all the basic building blocks to support life? … Does Mars have life on it?”
After an eight-month journey, Curiosity reached the Martian surface with new technology, Boykins said.
Airbags were replaced with a sky crane touchdown system. The parachute was updated for better reliability. New cameras were activated to help the rover during landing using visual computations.
In addition, engineers modified Curiosity’s wheels to be made from aluminum and titanium, making them thinner and “a little bit springy,” Boykins said.
The wheels also were carved with a design to stamp “JPL” (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) in Morse code on the dusty Mars surface, he said.
None of a rover’s movements or measurements come quickly, Boykins said. It would take the rover about 45 minutes to go from end zone to end zone of a football field, he said.
Curiosity took on sample collecting using a laser with X-ray fluorescence to determine the chemical composition of Martian rocks.
Through the samples, scientists learned that “all the basic building blocks needed for life [on Mars] are there,” Boykins said.
“The only question we couldn’t answer is whether there was life on Mars.”
The rover Perseverance, launched in 2020, contains improved wheels and cameras. One of the more impressive updates, Boykins said, was the addition of MOXIE (Mars Oxidation Experiment), in which “we land on the surface of Mars … we suck in the carbon dioxide atmosphere, do a reverse fuel cell chemistry and spit out 99.96 percent pure oxygen.”
The successful experiment, he said, means scientists can “actually make oxygen that’s breathable for human beings.”
Another advancement is the inclusion of a helicopter named Ingenuity to help explore the surface.
“I’m so excited we did this,” Boykins said. “Ingenuity actually lives on the belly of Perseverance. We actually drop her on the ground and then the rover drives away,” leaving the helicopter to fly off and capture images, sound measurements and more.
Rover names reflect the human spirit
Each of the rover names came from young students who entered essay contests.
One wrote that “it’s the spirit of exploration and the opportunities that are afforded to us in this country that make our country so great,” Boykins paraphrased.
A sixth-grader wrote “about how curiosity makes us wake up in the morning. It’s curiosity that tells us to ask questions about why we do something,” Boykins said.
Another student wrote that “humans are at the top of the food chain because we persevere,” Boykins said.
And, another student wrote, ingenuity is needed to come up with the idea to place a helicopter on a rover.
All of those traits and more keep nearly 6,000 people at JPL working on the rovers, along with thousands more internationally, Boykins said.
But the discoveries made by roving the Red Planet are less about proving whether humans can live on Mars than they are about preventing humanity from causing its own extinction through the depletion of water on Earth, Boykins said.
The next presentation in the Music Society’s Speaker Series is “Nat Geo Live: Life on the Vertical” with rock climber Mark Synnott at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 16. Learn more at theconrad.org. ◆
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