Today’s Space Sunday concerns the Curiosity Rover mission on Mars. It’s fitting, because this week marks the two-year anniversary of the rover’s landing on the fourth planet from the Sun. As far as birthdays go, Curiosity’s a toddler now, so you’ll want to blow out a candle for our little Rover-That-Could on August 6th.
Two years ago, this mission created quite the stir not only in the science world, but also in the general public. The craze struck a chord deep in my heart. Looking back, I imagine what I felt was akin to what the people felt back in 1969, when man first landed on the moon. It was a strong sense of connection to a large group of people I didn’t even know, all wanting and hoping for the same thing. Maybe it’s best described as being in a stadium supporting your favorite sports team, and cheering for them along with thousands of other people. Emotions!
But why? Why was it so big to the public? We’ve sent objects to Mars before. Probes have flown by the outer planets. It’s not even the first rover to land on Mars. What I recall though, is that its process of landing was so complex that it just felt sci-fi. The probe was too big and too heavy to drop in like its predecessors, giant bubbles that just bounced until they stopped moving. Curiosity, however, used something called a sky crane. This video will cover the process! =)
Could you feel the excitement? Two years, and I can still feel it. suhsuhsuhsuhsuuuuuuh!
Now lets get more into it. “What is it for?” you ask. Curiosity’s mission is officially named “Mars Science Laboratory,” and is part of the larger Mars Exploration Program, which is the long-term effort of robotic exploration of the planet. Curiosity’s main function is to assess whether or not the Martian landscape ever had an environment capable of sustaining microbes. Basically, it was sent to search for signs of life and determine habitability.
How then, can it it determine all this stuff? Well, glad you asked! Essentially, the untouched environment holds its history in its rocks. The records of the planets climate and geology is written in the soil. Curiosity is able to examine their composition and structure and observe formations. Not to mention this baby came equipped with a slew of state of the art equipment: scoops, lasers, microscopes, infrared and visible cameras. You name it!
Now then, what have we learned in these two years that Curiosity has been on Mars? Well, we have seen many pictures of what Curiosity has come across, as well a few significant discoveries. I’ll name a few.
The first: only seven weeks on the planet and Curiosity discovered evidence of an ancient stream-bed. It found in multiple places rocky outcrops that are caused by water erosion. Plus, it also had rounded rocks, signs of being transported a distance.
Second, after it drilled a couple inches into a rock and analyzed what lay beneath the surface, it found key chemicals. These are key for life building: sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and carbon. The rock also contained clay minerals which suggested that the area was a lake that was neutral in pH. This finding suggested that Mars could have supported microbial life and probably fresh water environments too.
Third, it measured the radiation in Mars. This was not only for its current mission, but also had thoughts on the future. It measured that the amount of radiation on the surface is no more than what is experienced in the space station. Basically, humans will not need to worry about radiation if they ever visit this planet.
There are many other small things it has found over the course of the past two years, but those are some of its more significant findings. It still has yet to reach its final destination, so it is very likely that more will be found in the coming years.
Now, I mentioned the slew of pictures before, yes? Well it has given us some great shots from the surface, and every now and then a picture causes a small stir among the scientific population on Earth. They think they see strange objects. Aliens!
Now, most of the controversy images that pop up involve a strange light which I believe (and I think NASA says) is a thing with the camera. Here’s an example!
Curiosity is still going strong today, chugging ever so frequently on its way to the little mountain. It still studies and examines rocks and soil. It snaps images daily and sends them back to earth. Curiosity is only the first of its kind: NASA and other agencies are all looking for ways to further explore this planet. With each finding, they get closer to the next big step. Sending a human to Mars.
What do you think? Do you remember the landing? Do you silently cheer for our companion to reach his endgame? I’ll leave you with the setting sun on Mars. Enjoy!