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Science & Health

Q&A with Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity’s lead scientist

To kick off our coverage of the Present-Day Habitability of Mars Conference, Daily Bruin senior staff Elizabeth Case (who blogged about her experience following the Endeavor space shuttle through the streets of L.A. last quarter) talked to Curiosity scientist, Ashwin Vasavada. Vasavada, a UCLA graduate, talks about his time in Westwood and the likeliness of humankind ever making it to Mars. Above: Vasavada stands with a mockup of a rover at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Photo by Tim Walters of Florida Today.

Ashwin Vasavada is the deputy project scientist for the Curiosity rover, the robot that landed on Mars last August with tremendous fanfare. Curiosity cost $2.5 billion and took a little more than eight months to fly from Earth to the red planet.

Vasavada graduated from UCLA in 1992 with a degree in geophysics and space physics, completed his doctorate at the California Institute of Technology, and returned to UCLA to do a postdoc and a fellowship. As the chief scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Vasavada oversees more than 400 scientists. These scientists have a goal: to find out if Mars was ever home to life.

What sparked your interest in planetary science?

When I was 10, we didn’t have cable so I used to watched science shows on PBS, like NOVA, and see pictures of other planets. I was blown away by the fact that these pictures were stuff that no one in history has ever seen before.

I was (especially influenced) by the Viking landers that went to Mars in 1976. Those pictures from the surface of Mars … taken from eye level. It’s like you’re standing on another planet.

How did your time at UCLA affect your career?

I’d known I wanted to do planetary exploration since I was 10 but I had no idea what major to pursue. It’s a really small field – if you want to send robots to a planet, what major do you choose? I came in as an aerospace engineer, but realized I was more of a scientist. The most important (event) as an undergrad was finding an announcement nailed to a board that said Professor (David) Paige was teaching a class on planetary science. I changed my major my senior year. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for UCLA.

Take us back to August 5, when Curiosity landed. What was going through your head?

We have a ton of rehearsals, as real as we can make them. We simulated landings, press conferences, even who gets on the intercom to say what when. I think when it was actually happening it was this mix of, ‘I’ve already had this happen 10 times’ and then this surreal feeling that everything was going too smoothly.

And during the seven minutes of terror?*

(*Once the Curiosity Rover entered Mars’ atmosphere, it took seven minutes for it to reach the planet’s surface. This descent was the riskiest part of the mission. However, because communications are limited by the speed of light, there was a signal delay between Earth and the rover of about 14 minutes. So once scientists received word that the Rover had entered the Martian atmosphere, it had either landed successfully or crashed.)

Seven minutes isn’t that long, when it comes down to it. You finally hit the top of the atmosphere, and then, bing bang boom, you’re down on the ground and everyone’s clapping. I was thinking … what just happened? We can’t have actually just done it.

Why spend $2.5 billion to send a robot to Mars?

I could give you answers about how it might help us understand our own planet better, but in the end, it’s about answering one of the most fundamental questions: are we alone in the universe?

A $2.5 billion mission is not cheap. When you make comparisons, it’s like a cup of coffee for every person (in the United States). We’re taxpayer funded, so I (want to know) is it worth it to all the people I’m friends with, my relatives, would they spend the amount of money to buy a cup of coffee to have some answers about the fundamental questions of the universe? And I think almost everyone would say yeah, that’s what makes it so special to live in this country and this day and age, because we can actually answer these questions.

Will humans ever see the surface of the red planet?

After working on a robot that took nine years to develop and is really complex to land and operate, I think I’m pretty humble about what it would take to get a human to mars. We can do a great amount of science with robots for something around 10% of the cost of a human mission.

But I also think you have to keep pushing for it. All these groups that have these great plans to do it in 10 years … It sounds really optimistic to me, but more power to them. I think it’s inevitable that we’ll want to go to Mars as a species, because we’re explorers and we want to show we can do these things as a people.

Vasavada will discuss the most recent findings from Curiosity at 1:55 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 5 at the Royce Auditorium as part of the Present-Day Habitability of Mars conference.

Follow @elizabeth_case or search #marsucla for live Twitter updates on the conference.

- Elizabeth Case, Daily Bruin senior staff.

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Science & Health

Follow our live coverage of the Present-Day Habitability of Mars Conference

Did you spend hours watching the Marvin the Martian cartoon as a kid? Read Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles? Have you ever dreamed about living on Mars?

Over the next two days, scientists from around the country will meet and discuss the possibility of sustaining life on Mars at the Present-Day Habitability of Mars Conference, and Mojo will cover it live.

Co-hosted by the UCLA Institute for Planets and Exoplanets, the UK center for Astrobiology and the NASA Astrobiology institute, the conference will feature some of the biggest names in planetary science, including the deputy project scientist of the Curiosity rover, Ashwin Vasavada.

Registration is still open on Monday and all of the talks will take place in the Royce Hall auditorium. Additionally, every presentation will be streamed live here. To watch, select “Enter as a Guest,” type in your name, and select “Enter Room.”

Tweet your questions and reactions using the hashtag #marsucla.

- Elizabeth Case, Daily Bruin Senior Staff

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Where to watch the Super Bowl in Westwood

Whether you’re a football fanatic or just eager to see the halftime show (read: The Beyonce Show) and commercials, there’s plenty of places to go in Westwood to watch the Super Bowl this Sunday. Here’s a list of restaurants and bars where you can gather with your friends to watch the big game and take a study break from midterms.

Barney’s Beanery

1037 Broxton Ave.
Los Angeles, CA

For a $5 entry fee you’ll get to watch the game on a huge big-screen television with food and drinks provided. Also there will even be a pregame party an explanation of how the game of football works for first timers. You must register through the site to participate.

Napa Valley Grille

1100 Glendon Ave., Suite 100
Los Angeles, CA 90024

BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse

939 Broxton Ave.
Westwood, CA 90024


1000 Gayley Ave.
Westwood, CA 90024

The Glendon Bar & Kitchen

1071 Glendon Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90024

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Food and Dining

Foodie Bucket List: Abbot Kinney First Fridays

Happy February, everyone! Foodies, here’s one reason to celebrate the arrival of a new month: tonight is Abbot Kinney First Fridays, Mardi Gras style. Get your beads, feathers, boas and masks on and head to Venice. Stores are open for extended hours, many restaurants have happy hour and there’s a ton of food trucks. The event lasts from approximately 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. (note: it’s best to arrive before 6 p.m. if you want to find parking nearby).

As a First Friday veteran, I think every Bruin should add this delicious event to their college bucket list. Here’s the deal: Every first Friday of every month, the famous quintessential street of Abbot Kinney in Venice opens up its sidewalks to dozens of the best food trucks in Los Angeles. Fellow foodies pack the streets to scavenge for their next favorite dish. Seasoned Bruins might recognize some of the famous food trucks, which used to frequent South Campus: India Jones, Kogi BBQ Truck, the Grilled Cheese Truck and the Flying Pig Truck, to name a few.

Per food truck norms, meals are served “tapas style, with portions big enough that you enjoy the flavors but you won’t get too full (so you can try as many dishes as your stomach will hold!) My suggestion: go with a group of friends and eat your way up and down both sides of the street. This way everyone gets a bite of everything!

My favorites treats include: B&B&B Waffle (pictured above, Bacon, Brie, Basil Liege Waffle… say what?! Yep, First Fridays food trucks have a ton of dishes like this) and the Speculoos cookie butter liege waffle from Crispy Waffle and Frite. Don’t miss Curb A Peel for their delightful and fresh tacodilla steak tacos … seriously, though. These tacos are stuffed with perfectly seasoned steak, but have a refreshing and light surprise burst of lime and pico de gallo. MeSoHungry offers sweet potato fries seasoned with garlic, parmesan and parsley that will knock your socks off. And if you’re in the mood for something rich, don’t skip out on the chocolate chip Oreo cookie from the dessert truck!

Are you a First Friday veteran? Leave a comment below or tweet us at @dbmojo to tell us your favorites of the night!

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UCLA Student Weekly Style Highlight

This week we wandered around campus and talked to students whose school-day style stood out among the sea of UCLA sweatshirts.

We stumbled across Zoe Goldstein (left), a third-year English student, studying outside of the Public Affairs Building. Goldstein says when she gets ready in the morning she doesn’t plan her outfit. She doesn’t even have a closet! She keeps all her clothing in cardboard boxes and wears whatever she grabs out in the three minutes she has between waking up and walking to class (which explains the stylishly mismatched socks). Her favorite places to buy clothes are thrift stores like Hollywood’s Jet Ragwhere shoppers can purchase items for a dollar each on Sundays. Hand-me-downs like these patterned tights are even better though because they’re free!

We interrupted first-year student Emily Liang (right) from her deep enchantment in the works of Plato to talk to her about her yellow, patterned pants. Liang said her outfit was inspired by the sunny, pleasant weather. She also chose a jean shirt to complete her blue and yellow school-spirited ensemble and brown ankle boots (she told us she can’t wear sneakers without being reminded of a middle school playground). And you must be wondering where she got those pants, right? She snagged them at Forever 21, one of her favorite stores. Before we could let Emily return to reading Plato, we gave her the impossible task of describing her style in terms of a movie, plant and color. Love Actually/Mint/Grass Green was her answer (We’ll let you decide what that means).

We spotted Charlene Tam (above) outside Royce Hall. It would have been hard not to spot her, what with her cotton-candy-pink locks and rainbow ensemble. Tam, a third-year Japanese student, is inspired by Harajuku fashion, in particular the style of Japanese singer/model/blogger Kyary Pamyu Pamyu (Google her and you’ll see the resemblance). Tam was particularly proud of her Alice in Wonderland print sweatshirt, a recent purchase. What excited us most about Tam’s style, however, was her attention to detail – from her nail polish (pastel colors with mini desserts painted on top) to the stuffed unicorn clipped to her bag.

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