NASA has successfully launched another mission to Mars with their biggest ever rover, Curiosity. Curiosity is the size of a car and the mission is the Mars Science Laboratory. Technically Curiosity is not searching for life, but it is assessing whether or not the Martian environment has been (or is?) suitable for life.
The main way to do that is through chemistry. By analysing different rocks, it can determine whether the elements needed for life are there in the right quantities. Life that we know has a distinctive chemical signature that can be detected as it uses different atoms and creates particular waste products. Plus the type and appearance of the rocks can tell us a lot about the past and the climate – different rocks form under different conditions.
Curiosity will also be able to study how water and carbon dioxide behave on Mars, two extremely important chemicals. Carbon dioxide is not only part of the photosynthesis/respiration cycle, it has a huge impact on planetary temperature as we’re experiencing now. Water is essential to all forms of life on Earth, plus it is a source of oxygen and hydrogen for fuel. So these two will not only tell us about Martian life, they will be important for any future manned missions to Mars.
Looking up, Curiosity will be able to monitor Martian surface radiation. On Earth we are heavily protected from radiation by our atmosphere, but the Martian atmosphere is extremely thin. It is useful scientifically to monitor what the sun and other stars are putting out, but it is also one of the great dangers of space exploration. So knowing what is happening is vital if future travellers are going to protect themselves.
Spirit and Opportunity
Curiosity is expected to reach Mars in August 2012 and the mission is expected to last almost 2 years. However, see the cartoon at the top. NASA has sent two previous rovers to Mars in 2003, landing in January 2004, with 90 day missions.
In 2009, after more than 6 years, Spirit became stuck. There were many attempts to help it move, however it was in a bad position for winter. This is when the rovers have trouble getting power through their solar panels. Eventually in March 2010 Spirit went into hibernation and there has been no contact since.
Opportunity is still active and currently scouting sites to wait out the winter. It has been going for almost 8 years now.
The exploration of Mars is stunning – that we are sending craft to another world. What we are learning in the process is teaching us not just about Mars, but better ways to do things on Earth as well.
NASA puts a lot of effort into publicising what they are doing and they can afford the fanciest websites 😉 If you or your little ones are at all into space, it’s definitely worth checking out their Mars site.
Enjoy this article? Subscribe to the weekly newsletter to hear about them all. Or grab my RSS feed