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How is the new Mars rover paving the way for human exploration of the red planet?

What?mars rover small

Landing on the red planet in August 2012, the Curiosity is the newest in a series of Mars rovers. This one-ton, car-sized, six-wheeled rover has been the center of much media attention ever since its landing, even having its own Twitter account (@MarsCuriosity) to keep the public constantly updated on its actions. Check out a zoomable view of the surface of Mars from the Curiosity at http://mars.nasa.gov/bp1/.

Beginning with the Apollo Program in the 1960s which achieved its lofty goal of “putting a man on the moon”, the Mars Curiosity builds on a history of space exploration and rovers seeking knowledge of what exists outside the planet Earth.

Why?

NASA has established four goals for not just the Curiosity, but for all projects that are produced by the Mars Science Laboratory. The first is to determine whether life ever arose on Mars. Two previous rovers, the Spirit (now inactive) and the Opportunity (still in exploration) found evidence that liquid water once existed on the surface of Mars. Scientists are hopeful that if they find evidence of water, a vital component of life, they might also find other materials that are necessary for life, such as the six chemical elements known as the building blocks of life: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur.

The second goal is to characterize the climate of Mars. Currently, Mars has a thin, cold atmosphere, which would cause much of the water on Mars to leave the surface. Most of any remaining water is likely frozen and trapped underneath the surface, but it is possible that a warmer Mars in the past could have had a thicker and wetter atmosphere that would have supported better environmental conditions more conducive to life. The third goal is to characterize the geology of Mars, studying the exact composition of Mars’ atmosphere as it exists now and the composition of rocks, soils, and land forms. Specifically, scientists will look for evidence of rocks that formed in the presence of water, searching for information on how the surface of Mars has changed in conjunction with the atmosphere over time. By studying the climate and geology of Mars, scientists can learn about the past and present conditions on the red planet and tie this information to better understanding of whether life on Mars could have existed.

Finally, the last and most ambitious goal is to prepare for human exploration. Scientists in the Mars Science Laboratory are studying precision landing techniques, radiation levels at the surface of Mars, and other potential hazards that might face future astronaut crews in order to pave the way for sending humans safely to the red planet (“Goals”).

How?

Curiosity has parts similar to what a human would need to explore Mars, but modified for a car-sized robot. The rover has seventeen cameras (“eyes”), seven of which are on its “neck and head.” The other cameras are placed in various other locations on its body that serve several purposes, including preventing it from crashing into large rocks and recording images of its descent through the atmosphere. Its “body” is an insulated container that protects its “vital organs,” such as its computer “brain.” The rover’s movement is limited; its “legs” and wheels are built for the incredibly rocky, uneven terrain of Mars, and so only has an average speed of 2 cm per second. And, it has a laser on its “forehead” that can zap rocks and rock layers several feet away to determine chemical compositions and allow scientists to decide whether or not a material or formation is interesting enough to observe up close.

For any materials of interest, Curiosity has a “scooping paw” that helps it sort through rock samples and a dust removal tool to clean samples. To study Martian rocks, the Curiosity has a “magnifying eye” imager that serves as a camera providing incredibly zoomed views of minerals, textures, and structures smaller than the diameter of a human hair!.  There is also an “atom sensor” alpha particle X-ray spectrometer, which helps scientists identify chemical elements in rocks and soil. All of these rock-analysis devices are found on the Curiosity’s “hand,” which is called a turret and is attached to the end of its seven-foot “arm” protruding from the body.

To assess its environmental surroundings, the Curiosity has several devices, including a radiation detector, a sundial, and an environmental monitoring station to record the weather. All of the information picked up by the Curiosity is relayed back to NASA through its “ears and mouth,” otherwise known as its communications antennae (“Learn About Me”).

So?

To borrow a famous science fiction tagline, the Curiosity is another step toward exploring space: the final frontier. As we learn further about Mars, we grow our knowledge of our own planet and the history of our solar system as well gain the fundamental information needed if we are ever to consider visiting or even colonizing other planets.

 Written by Constance Kaita

Works Referenced

Image courtesy of www.jpl.nasa.gov

“Goals: Mars Science Laboratory Contribution to Mars Exploration Program Science Goals.” NASA.gov. Jet Propulsion Laboratory of the California Institute of Technology. n.d. Web. 19 June 2013.

“Learn About Me: Curiosity.” NASA.gov. Jet Propulsion Laboratory of the California Institute of Technology. n.d. Web. 19 June 2013.

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