Mars Rover Discovers This Guy

29 Aug

If you were lucky enough to be streaming the footage of the NASA control room on the afternoon of the 6th of August, you would’ve witnessed NASA scientists dancing, hugging, high-fiving, and crying with joy. They had every reason to be over the moon; their US$2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, survived a deceleration from 21,000 kilometres per hour to sit comfortably stationary in a dusty crater hundreds of millions kilometres away from Earth. Getting to Mars is expensive and labour intensive, but the data Curiosity will send back to Earth could change our understanding of life in the universe.

It’s understandably difficult to get to Mars. The Red Planet is pretty far away, varying from about 50 million to 400 million kilometres from Earth, depending on both planets’ orbits. Since the 1960s, NASA and the former Soviet Union have been launching satellites and landers in the general direction of Mars, and out of 39 launches, only 20 have reached their destination. Of those 20 successes, 7 have been actual landings on the planet’s surface. The other 13 were satellite missions, providing images of the Martian surface from low orbits.

In 1976, NASA’s Viking 1 landed on Mars and sent back the first images from the surface of the planet, in fact, the first images from the surface of any planet other than Earth. NASA launched their second successful mission to Mars in 1996, with Pathfinder and its on-board microwave-oven-sized robot companion Sojourner landing on Mars in 1997. Sojourner was the first wheeled robot on Mars. It rolled around and collected images and data that suggested that Mars was once an ideal location for life to develop; warm and covered in water.

It wasn’t until 2001 that the Mars Odyssey probe discovered ice under Mars’s dusty surface; the first physical evidence of water on another planet. Twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity landed on Mars in 2003, and found further evidence of ancient waterways on Mars, including mineral deposits associated with free-flowing water. In 2008, the Phoenix rover observed snow falling from Martian clouds. Now it’s Curiosity’sturn to find some microbial life in amongst all that Martian water.

Curiosity is about 3 metres long and weighs 900 kilograms, with a top speed of 90 metres per hour. It is equipped with 17 cameras, and an array of instruments for analysing the content of mineral and soil samples. Its objectives include identifying traces of chemicals that could indicate life, determining how soil and rocks were formed, and establishing a time-scale for the development of the Martian atmosphere by measuring levels of carbon dioxide and other gases. Curiosity will be spending two lonely years on Mars, before shutting down. If evidence of life is found, Mars could well be an environment in which humans could survive. It seems like the stuff of science fiction, but manned missions to Mars might not be too far behind Curiosity’s trail-blazing.

You can follow Curiosity on Twitter, @MarsCuriosity, or you can find Curiosity’s abusive alter ego, @MarsCuroisity. Both are worth your time.

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