By Laura Shin
Posting in Energy
Another Mars rover -- the biggest one yet -- is set to land Monday. Read these FAQs to find out what will it be doing there.
In the wee hours of Monday, Eastern Daylight Time, a NASA rover named Curiosity should, if all goes according to plan, land on Mars after a more than eight-month-journey.
While Curiosity is not the first Mars rover, it is much bigger than its predecessors, Spirit and Opportunity. That is mostly due to the fact that its scientific instruments are much bigger -- altogether they weigh 165 pounds, as opposed to 11 pounds on Spirit and Opportunity.
Its $2.5 billion mission is to study the environment of early Mars and assess whether the area it will explore has ever had conditions favorable for life (microbial life, not Martians, unfortunately) -- and whether conditions were favorable for preserving evidence of life.
With that information, NASA will be able to determine how best to shape future missions -- either ones that will bring samples back to Earth for life-detection tests, or for ones that bring life-detection experiments to Mars.
And now that I've piqued your curiosity (terrible pun intended), here are answers to all the questions you haven't thought to ask about Curiosity but should have:
Where exactly on Mars is Curiosity going?
Curiosity will be landing in Mars's Gale Crater, a 96-mile-wide bowl just south of the planet's equator. It's one of the lowest points on Mars, and since we think water once flowed on Mars, we suspect there will be evidence for that in the rocks at the bottom of the crater.
What will it do when it arrives?
NASA will spend the first several weeks checking the rover's condition: Curiosity's computers will get a software upgrade; NASA will test how well its robotic arm works; Curiosity will take its first drive.
Within a few months, the rover will start on its travels up Aeolis Mons, a three-mile-high mountain nicknamed Mount Sharp right in the middle of Gale Crater. From orbiting spacecraft, we know that Mount Sharp is made up of layered rocks. Scientists hope that these rocks will provide a history of Mars. For instance, the base of the mountain appears to have clays, which indicates a history of water. As the rover goes up the mountain, its findings would tell us more about Mars's recent history.
How will it collect its data?
Curiosity has a number of sophisticated instruments, some of which seem to come straight from sci-fi films:
- The ChemCam is a rock-vaporizing laser. As The New York Times reports, it can "turn a smidgen of rock into a puff of glowing, superhot gas from a distance of up to 25 feet." (Do I hear Hollywood calling?) It can then determine what elements are in the rock to see which samples should be further investigated (such as, say, rocks full of carbon).
- The Sample Analysis at Mars or "Sam" studies ground-up rock by heating samples to 1,800 degrees and then identifying the released gases. That is a crucial step to finding "organics," which are carbon-based molecules. While the presence organics alone wouldn't definitively indicate life on Mars (sometimes nonliving chemical reactions give rise to them), it would give us more hope that life had either previously existed on Mars or does today. Sam will also analyze the atmosphere to either confirm or deny controversial claims that Mars's atmosphere contains methane. If it does, it's possible that microbes are responsible for it.
- The Radiation Assessment Detector will do exactly what its name says in order to help us plan for future human exploration of Mars.
- The Times lists other instruments on board: "weather station; a device that shoots particles into the rock and measures X-rays coming out; and several cameras, including one that mimics the hand lens of a geologist for close-up looks at rocks." That last one, NASA says, is the Mars Hand Lens Imager, which will be able to reveal details smaller than the width of a human hair.
How long with Curiosity's mission last?
The rover has the ability to drive for 12.4 miles over one Martian year, which is a little more than a year and 10 months in Earth years. But previous rovers have lasted long beyond their three-month expiration date, with Spirit lasting six years and Opportunity, which landed in 2004, still roving.
How does Curiosity get its power?
Curiosity is powered by plutonium, so the heat of radioactive decay is producing its electricity. This is exactly what the two Voyager spacecraft, which have been traveling for the last 35 years out to the edges of the solar system, have been running on.
Check out this infographic outlining the landing:
The New York Times also has some beautiful graphics of the landing and Curiosity here.
Update, August 6, 2012:
- Read about the landing.
- See the photos, including the first ones Curiosity sent back to Earth.
- Watch video footage of Curiosity's final descent to Mars
- What Curiosity's been seeing on Mars (photos)
- Curiosity's first high-res, color, panoramic images from Mars! (photos)
Related on SmartPlanet:
- Mars rover Curiosity powered by nuclear energy
- Looking for the origins of the universe? Head to Chile
- Looking for the origins of the universe in one of Earth's least habitable places (photos)
- How scientists concluded there is water on Mars
- China ramps up space exploration as U.S. program shrinks
- Getting closer and closer to finding an Earth-like planet
- Galaxy has at least 100 billion planets, says new estimate
- SpaceX makes history with commercial space flight
- The historic SpaceX shuttle launch (photos)
via: NASA press kit and fact sheet, The New York Times
illustrations: Artist's concept of Mars Science Laboratory entry, descent and landing. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Jul 31, 2012
just looking back on the comments here i think from what curiosity has delivered so far we can safely say its been a massive success. A good update here of curiosity http://newsmoves.com/curiosity-continues-to-search-for-the-red-planets-secrets/
[ul][*]Is Curiosity 100% sterile? If not, then the results will be contaminated. [*]Does vaporizing a rock from up to 25 feet away with a laser affect the rock's chemsty in any way? [*]Likewise, does heating rock to 1,800 degrees affect the rock's chemsty in any way? [ul] When asked how life came to be on Earth, Richard Dawkins (and others) believe that life on Earth originated from Mars or some other planet, which still doesn't explain how life began.
by Darin_Selby@hotmail.com Most of us Baby Boomers have allowed ourselves to be brainwashed into believing that "Mom, apple pie, and launch the Mars Rover!" is the way to go. In the process, the planet is being trashed by more and more launches, as the industry WORLDWIDE increases, to launch even privatized space vehicles, based upon the tried and tested technology of the environmentally-disasterous Space Shuttle era. At this point, I question the need to go into outer space at all, to accomplish the very thing that we're collectively seeking to do in the first place. This veil of hypocrisy of the space program being for the 'betterment of all Mankind' must be lifted, to reveal what is REALLY going on with the trashing of the environment at large. First Factual Error was in the disregard for all of life and the environment, by launching 10 POUNDS OF PLUTONIUM and risking an accident in the process. So not only did NASA risk life and limb with launching 10 lbs. of Plutonium, what came out of the TAIL PIPE of the ATLAS ROCKET BOOSTER that lifted this spacecraft into outer space? The space program has proved itself in many ways, but exploring pristine space has a large environmental cost here on Earth. NASA estimates that complete cleanup of the remnants of space shots going all the way back to the Apollo Program will take decades and the cost will run close to one Billion dollars. Learn more about the Mars rocket launch environmental disaster here: http://darinselby.1hwy.com/MonsterMarsRocket.html Second Factual Error is what was finally chosen to be the way to land on Mars. I am simply amazed at the overly-complex, Rube Goldberg way that NASA has decided to land their rover named, 'Curiosity' on Mars. Watch this video, and at about the 2 minute mark, when the rockets get fired, everything gets WAY more complicated than it really needs to be. Does a Science lab on Mars to dig for rocks really warrant the $2.5 billion cost of taxpayer's money? And if it does, after all the environmental damage to our atmospheric envelope from solid rocket fuel pollution, and the risk of 10 lbs. of Plutonium dispersement from an accident, now Curiosity is almost ready to land on Mars, Aug 5th. So I watch this video, "Seven Minutes of Terror" and they're all 'biting their nails' in it because of all the things that could go wrong with the TOTALLY LAME landing sequence (in my opinion, of course), that the NASA technicians came up with. The Tao Te Ching explains it this way, "Plan difficult tasks through the simplest tasks Achieve large tasks through the smallest tasks The difficult tasks of the world must be handled through the simple tasks The large tasks of the world must be handled through the small tasks" In other words, that which has become simple has matured. What has seemed to be completely forgotten on the drawing board for creating the entry module onto the Martian surface, was the simplicity of the 'Deployable Tensairity Inflatable Wing': This wing has already been built and tested by none other than NASA, and it completely eliminates the need for the use of the complicated EIGHT rockets (that will all have to work without one glitch) for landing the Mars rover. The price tag would have also been a fraction of what was spent on this landing design, which has a HIGH probability of failure. And that is according to the engineers who built it! If a Deployable âTensairityâ Inflatable Wing were to be used, the 200 mph parachute descent would then be able to turn into a GLIDING descent, with the minimal use of small rockets to control pitch and yaw of the flying lander. These same small rockets would also be utilized for short lift-offs, so that Curiosity could take off and fly to another location. Then it glides once again to a soft landing. The Tensairity wings deflate, roll back up and stow away, to be ready for the next short runway take-off. Third Factual Error People are continuously fed the B,S. that we need to go into outer space, or to Mars, or back to the moon. This propaganda was all started in the U.S. by a captured Nazi rocket scientist, Wernher Von Braun, who teamed up with Walt Disney back in the '50's. Through Disney media movies, they BRAINWASHED a good majority of the Baby Boomer generation into this totally INSANE way to treat the environment, & frivolously waste BILLIONS of dollars on unnecessary outer-space satellite projects. And one thing about every single satellite in orbit is that they ALL must eventually return in a decaying orbit, to burn up in the atmosphere, releasing TONS of TOXIC & RADIOACTIVE CHEMICALS in re-entry into our fragile atmospheric envelope. Instead of billions of dollars wasted on gathering some MOON and MARS ROCKS, couldn't it be better channeled by using this voluminous scientific knowledge of information overload that has already been acquired, on the betterment of mankind here on Earth? Learn more about this here: http://darinselby.1hwy.com/NASASatelliteReEntryDanger.html Fourth Factual Error That we need satellites at 250 - 350 miles altitude, as well as at a 22,500 miles geosynchronous orbit. MILITARY advantages are the main reason. Because, almost EVERYTHING that we're doing with orbital space satellites can be done with Stratospheric Airships, and at a mere 25 miles altitude! As far as orbital satellites go, this ridiculous and environmentally unsound BLASTING OFF from the earth is no longer necessary. We can now FLOAT to the edge of space instead, and accomplish just about everything that we were doing at 10 times the altitude. Learn more about this here: http://darinselby.1hwy.com/floattospace.html
All this money being spent for WHAT? It would be better spent here on Earth because there are so many unsolved things here. Why not leave the Moon and Mars alone?
Because the technologies developed from this will indeed trickle down and improve life here. Because for most of the electronics, computing power, miniatureized circuits and related gear that we use now - for better or for worse, the seeds were planted by the space programs and related projects.