The passing of astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon, last month symbolized the start of a new era in human space travel. Space agencies are now looking beyond the Earth’s orbit to Mars, our closest planetary neighbor. In the near future, they hope to understand much more about the Red Planet, including if life ever existed on its surface, with the help of the most expensive remote-controlled car ever made.
The space rover, known as the Curiosity Rover or just Curiosity, landed on Mars on August 5 to start its maiden voyage on Mars. Curiosity’s first task? To play a pre-recorded message from Charles Bolden, the current Administrator of NASA, on Mars. In it, Bolden congratulated the Curiosity team, vigorously monitoring Curiosity from their base in NASA’s Jet-Propulsion Lab (JPL) in California, on a successful landing. Since then, Curiosity has sent many high-resolution images back to the JPL, a stunning panorama of the surface of Mars that has excited scientists about the potential discoveries that might be made.
“With this, we have another small step that’s being taken in extending the human presence beyond Earth, and actually bringing that experience of exploring the planets back a little closer to all of us,” Curiosity program executive Dave Lavery told reporters on August 27th.
Curiosity landed in the Gale Crater, a 96-mile wide crater on Mars’ surface, that astronomers believe was formed by a meteor collision about 3.5 billion years ago. Over the next two years, the $2.5 billion robot will explore the surface of Mars, in the Gale Crater and beyond. It is designed to take soil samples from various spots, and to test those samples for signs of microbial life using an onboard chemistry lab known as Sample Analysis at Mars, or SAM.
Over the course of its mission, scientists hope Curiosity will make it from the bottom of Gale Crater to its peak, a 3.4-mile tall mountain known as Mount Sharp. They chose Mount Sharp for a reason: since 2003 scientists have reported the existence of life, or of molecules of its basic source, water, in the sediment gathered around its base. They hope that analyzing the sediment with Curiosity’s advanced tools will finally give them the definitive proof they have long sought out.
In addition to searching for life, Curiosity is equipped to determine what minerals compose Mars’ brick-red soil. Atop the rover rests a laser powerful enough to vaporize rock. A small telescope can then analyze the material hit by the laser and determine its mineral composition based on how it reflects light of different wavelengths. The system, known as Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam), is predicted to make about 14,000 such measurements over the course of Curiosity’s mission.
Despite these lofty goals, it will be some time before the Curiosity Team sees concrete results from their Mars rover. They are currently testing the driving mechanism, keeping Curiosity near the landing site and looking for potential hazards in the terrain. In addition, the rover tops out at a speed of 0.1 mph, and at its peak technicians expect it to traverse about the length of a football field each day. Also, they plan to first send the rover away from Mount Sharp, to an area known as Glenelg. The area, with a name that could pass for an alien civilization, is actually a spot where three different terrains come together, which should give a wide sampling for ChemCam to test as an initial run.
As great an accomplishment as the Curiosity Rover is, the NASA team is already looking beyond robots, to the possibility of a manned mission to Mars. In his interview, Lavery said, “As Curiosity continues her mission, we hope the words of [Bolden] will be an inspiration to someone who’s alive today, who will become the first to stand upon the surface of the planets Mars. Like the great Neil Armstrong, they’ll be able to speak aloud — in first person at that point — of the next giant leap in human experience.”
That’s something the late Mr. Armstrong would certainly approve of.