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From Minnesota To Mars

September 19, 2012, 10:00 PM by Perry Groten

From Minnesota To Mars

It's been one month since scientists fired the shot heard 'round the world.  Back in August, the rover named "Curiosity" fired a laser beam into the Martian landscape. It was an historic maneuver that could ultimately determine whether life has ever existed on the Red Planet.  A Luverne, Minnesota, native and South Dakota School of Mines graduate helped pull the trigger.  This electrical engineer still has Mars rocks in his crosshairs.

After more than a month of test drives on the surface of Mars, the rover Curiosity has been declared fully-operational and ready to go full-throttle into its Martian mission.

"There's nothing quite like it.  It's a unique experience and I feel real privileged to be one of the people involved," electrical engineer Tony Nelson said.

Nelson helped design and test a key component of the rover.  The Chem-Cam shoots a laser beam to break up Martian rocks for further study.  Nelson 'talks' to the Chem-Cam through computers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

"From an engineering perspective, it's my job to make sure that all of the commands are perfect, and that we don't harm the rover or don't harm the instrument, so it's a huge responsibility," Nelson said.

Nelson was part of the team that fired the very first laser.

"That night, when I sent the first commands, I didn't sleep that well because you send the commands essentially at the start of the Martian day and you wait for those commands to be executed and get the data at the end of the Martian day, so there's a bit of a lag and that coincided with my sleeping time that day," Nelson said.

But that interplanetary jet lag was worth a few sleepless nights.  Since that first firing, Curiosity has been a regular cosmic six-shooter, sometimes targeting rocks as many as a half-dozen times a day.

"It's not as exciting as you might expect.  It's just a little flash of light and that's it," Nelson said.

But that little flash of light is performing groundbreaking research, allowing scientists to examine chemicals in the rocks to see if Mars could have supported life.

"I just hope that there's good science for years to come.  I can't really comment on what they'll find; I have no idea.  I just want to, as an engineer, I just want to help the scientists get the data they need and it's just exciting," Nelson said.

Before and after pictures reveal that the laser has been right on target, but sometimes requiring a few nudges from Earth.

"We're having to correct slightly for pointing the mast that sits on the rover where Chem-Cam is housed, so there's a little anxiety there too, because we have to do those corrections manually at this time," Nelson said.

Nelson is absorbed in the most minor details of uplinking complex commands to the rover.   But there's no escaping the big picture of what's taking place millions of miles away and the potential discoveries that await Curiosity's gaze.

"It really does hit me sometimes, especially when I see the images that come back.  It's pretty profound.  It's very desolate.  It's very clear that we're on another planet; the rover's on another planet.  It's really profound to me," Nelson said.

The Curiosity mission is making science cool to a generation of future space explorers.

"I think kids really love robots and they love cars and this is sort of a robotic car and I think this really appeals to kids.  I've had a lot of people come up to me about it and kids just get really excited about it when you tell them you work on the Mars rover," Nelson said.

Nelson hopes that excitement will propel kids to seek-out further scientific knowledge, by following in Curiosity's tracks.  

Within a couple of months, Nelson should be able to remotely-control the rover from his regular workplace at New Mexico's Los Alamos Laboratory.

For more information on the Mars rover mission, click here.

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