Dr Japie van Zyl explains Curiosity’s mission to Mars

When the Curiosity Rover drives from one place to another on Mars, it leaves the letters JPL in Morse code on the surface.

Dr Japie van Zyl (Photo: Hennie Rudman)

According to Dr Japie van Zyl, Associate Director: Project Formulation and Strategy at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), these markings on the wheels help engineers on earth calculate the distance the rover is travelling, as there is no odometer on board.

Coincidentally, it is also a manifestation of his favourite quote: “Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail” (Ralph Waldo Emerson).

On Monday, 3 September Dr Van Zyl was hosted by InnovUS, Stellenbosch University’s Technology Transfer Company, to speak in Stellenbosch at a special event as part of their Maverick series. (Watch video)

Dr Van Zyl himself is quite a trailblazer. Born in Namibia, he completed his studies in electrical and electronic engineering at Stellenbosch University in the late seventies and received bursaries to continue his studies in engineering and physics at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

He joined JPL in 1986.

Because he believes he must give back as much as possible to the continent he comes from, he accepted a position as professor extraordinary in SU’s Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering and he often accepts invitations to speak at events in South Africa and Namibia.

Dr Van Zyl told the audience the objective of Curiosity’s mission is to find out whether there are any signs that life could have been supported on Mars.

According to him, some people think they’re looking for rabbits but he explained that they’re not searching for signs of life as we understand it here on earth, but rather for elements of life such as water and possible energy sources.

“Although it would be great if we could get a picture of a rabbit (on Mars),” he joked.

There are many similarities between the earth and Mars: There are sand dunes, canyons, volcanoes and deserts. In fact, Dr Van Zyl said, Mars reminds him of Namibia.

Curiosity landed on Mars on 6 August (SA time). It is a roving chemical laboratory about the size of a Mini Cooper and to land it successfully was “very, very difficult”, Dr Van Zyl said.

By the time the rover reached the atmosphere of Mars, it was travelling at 21 000 km/h and its kinetic energy was equal to that 18 000 Formula One cars driving at top speed.

To put the landing in perspective, he said: “It will be a little like asking Ernie Els to tee off here in Cape Town and hit a golf ball into the cup at St Andrews in Scotland. And to make Ernie’s life a little more difficult, he doesn’t know what the weather is like in Scotland. And if that’s not enough, the cup is moving at 100 000 km/h.”

He showed a video clip of the landing, which elicited spontaneous applause from the audience.

The rover will start exploring soon and will plot its own path to get where the engineers want it to go. It can figure out size (it can scale an object of about 50cm in height) and depth, but not how soft the sand is and there is a possibility that it could get stuck. “When one of the 2004 rovers got stuck, I received many emails from Namibia offering to drive it out,” Dr Van Zyl joked.

Curiosity’s first challenge will be to drive up Mount Sharp, a 6 km high mountain. “We will be covering millions of years of Martian history,” he said.

There have been questions as to how Curiosity will manage that, seeing as it only generates 110 W of power. Dr Van Zyl explained that the power might not seem much, but that the torque delivered to an individual wheel of the rover is more than the total torque delivered by a Ford V8 truck’s engine. “That is how we will climb that mountain: Slowly and deliberately,” he said.

Dr Van Zyl expects that they will soon start receiving data from Curiosity, but even if nothing more exciting happens, the mission will still be considered a success

“The aim of a mission like this is to learn: Learn how to land, learn about the history of Mars. Everyone will be able to benefit from this information, including institutions in South Africa, because we can transfer this knowledge to a new generation of engineers and physicists.” However, he doesn’t believe that it will be possible for humans to travel to Mars within the next 20 years.

He is very excited about South Africa’s progress in terms of Space science and admires what he refers to as “African ingenuity”.

He warned Prof Herman Steyn, Head of SU’s Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, to keep a number of micro-satellites ready, as JPL might be able to use them in future missions, specifically to Jupiter’s moon Europa.

Dr Van Zyl believes that students receive a very good education and platform at Stellenbosch University and said his years at SU played a big role in the success of his career.

“I have to say the foundation in engineering I received here at Stellenbosch is unparalleled in the world,” he said.