WWU helping Mars rover explore the red planet

KING 5's Eric Wilkinson reports.

On the cosmic road of life that runs through Melissa Rice's office, explorers are wanted.

The Western Washington University associate professor sees things on a daily basis that are hard for the average mind to fathom.

"I get to look at an individual grain of sand on a planet 100 million miles away," she said with a smile. "Not a bad day job."

Rice is one of just 400 scientists on Earth exploring Mars through the robotic rover "Curiosity."

The rover beams back incredibly high definition images of the planet from space, and Rice and her team analyze them.

"Some days if I get in super early, maybe I'm the first person to have ever seen this vista from an alien planet," she said. "It's truly awesome."

Curiosity landed on Mars in 2012 and has been surveying the surface ever since.

Rice and her graduate students help decide where the rover will roam and then direct it, via NASA scientists, to its next adventure.

"Right now, we're still on our way to a giant mountain, a mountain that's taller than Mount Rainier," said Rice.

She's talking about Mars's mysterious, 16,000-foot tall Mount Sharp. It's mysterious, because no one can figure out how it was formed.  There are no plate tectonics on Mars like there are on Earth.

"It makes you wonder how do you grow these enormous mountains on a planet without the same geological drivers that we have?" she said.

Curiosity is 10 feet tall and 2,000 pounds – the size of a small car. It has a seven-foot-long arm that is used to take pictures of the planet, and it even takes the occasional selfie.

After all, what's the point in traveling 100 million miles to Mars if you can't prove you were there?

At this point, they haven't found any Kardashians on the Red Planet, but they do hope to find evidence of other life forms.

"I'd love to find a great big dinosaur bone sticking out of the sand," joked Rice. "I'm not counting on that, but there is a possibility that life there once existed. That's why we are there, and we are real explorers."

© 2017 KING-TV


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