Written By Kesha Amin, Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences, Class of 2021
Kesha is majoring in Cell Biology and Neuroscience and minoring in Psychology and Spanish.
Photos were taken by Ethan Catalanello, Rutgers student and member of the Rutgers Astronomical Society.
Observatories provide a wealth of knowledge that can help us understand the science of astronomy on a whole new level. During the Spring of 2019, I went to two Public Observatory Nights at the Robert A. Schommer Astronomical Observatory on Busch campus of Rutgers University. Although cloudy skies prevented me from viewing the sky from the telescope, I was able to attend a lecture presented by a member of the Rutgers Astronomical Society about the Mars rovers. The lecture explored topics such as the four terrestrial planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars) and provided an in-depth look at the mission objectives and discoveries of the Mars rovers to date. Dubbed Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity, the rovers sought to do what no human has done: visit the surface of Mars to provide insight on its topography, geography, and climate.
The Spirit rover completed its 90-day mission on Mars after landing in January 2004. In fact, Spirit exceeded its mission objectives by lasting over six years until it became stuck in a “sand trap” that interfered with its ability to recharge. The rover also discovered evidence of liquid water once existing on Mars in the Gusev Crater, which is believed to be a former lake. Spirit took panoramic black-and-white images which scientists combined to produce color images of the craters, hills, and ridges. In mid-2011, NASA declared the end of communication efforts with Spirit and transitioned into focusing on its twin, Opportunity.
The Opportunity rover surpassed Spirit and was able to survive for an estimated 15 Earth years through continual recharging of its batteries and hibernating during dust storms to save power. Opportunity successfully provided multiple images of a number of other craters along with soil and rock sample analyses from onboard imaging instruments that could reveal more information about past existence of water on Mars.
Unfortunately, in February 2019, NASA officially ended the Opportunity mission when communications from the rover ceased due to a large dust storm. Opportunity is regarded as one of the most successful endeavors by a Mars rover, returning 224,000 pictures and traversing a distance of 28 miles.
A third rover, Curiosity, landed in 2012 and is the largest rover to touch down on the surface of Mars. Curiosity’s missions include an analysis of Martian climate and geology by collecting rock, soil, and air samples using onboard scientific instruments and to determine if Mars could have ever supported microbial life. After failing to boot up successfully, which caused it to enter safe mode, the Curiosity rover is up and running again.
When I went to the Public Observatory Night for the second time, cloudy skies prevented us from using the telescopes once again. This time, I spoke with a Rutgers student and member of the Rutgers Astronomical Society, Ethan Catalanello, who was delighted to share some photographs that he had taken of different constellations and the moon. Ethan is very passionate about astrophotography and he has his own Instagram account (@GalacticCoreDigital) dedicated to sharing his celestial images which show galaxies, nebulas, star clusters, and the moon. Although I did not get to view the skies myself, I had an amazing experience learning more about astronomy through the lectures and interactions with the club’s members.
Learning from observatories is a great opportunity to broaden your knowledge, and I hope some of you will be inspired to explore astronomy. If you would like to get involved and participate in a Public Observatory Night, visit the Rutgers Observatory website.