The Mars mission is of primal importance to scientists as Mars is the closest sister planet of Earth where scientists have strongly suspected the presence or past existence of organic life. Finding evidence of microbial life by analysing the soil, atmosphere and rocks of the Red Planet is also a central mission. The findings of the mission are sure to transform our understanding of both Mars and other planets. The rover will bring back Martian rocks and soil back to Earth, which is expected to increase further possibilities of deep space exploration and open the vistas for manned missions to Mars.
As National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter jettisoned the Mars Science Laboratory called the Curiosity on the fiery red planet, Mars, mankind has achieved yet another amazing feat in space exploration after the first landing on the moon. ‘Curiosity’ landed on the Mars surface after performing complex maneuvers. This was part of the Mars exploration programme of NASA even as the institution suffered from myriad budget cuts over the past few years. Curiosity landed after an 8-month and 567-million-kilometer long journey in space. Interestingly, the scientists who made this a success story joyfully declared that the landing of Curiosity on Mars ran into lesser technical problems as compared to the simulations that they had performed over the last 2 years. Curiosity is the first fully equipped mobile lab that has ever been sent out into space. The Mars mission is of primal importance to scientists as Mars is the closest sister planet of Earth where scientists have strongly suspected the presence or past existence of organic life. Finding evidence of microbial life by analysing the soil, atmosphere and rocks of the Red Planet is also the central mission of Curiosity. The findings of the mission are sure to transform our understanding of both Mars and other planets. The rover will bring back Martian rocks and soil back to Earth, which is expected to increase further possibilities of deep space exploration and open vistas for manned missions to Mars.
Curiosity landed near the centre of the Gale Crater, which has a diameter of 128 kms, and the place of its landing has been called the ‘Crime Scene’ as around it is the litter of the parachute, the heat shield and other things that Curiosity discarded in the process of its landing as the trail of debris began about 1,200 metres from Curiosity’s landing site. It may take weeks or perhaps months before Curiosity reached the 5-km high mountain at the center of the crater, which is its primary target for the next 2 years of the mission. This mountain has been named as Mount Sharp and is believed to have been formed out of the remains of the sediment that once completely filled the basin therefore offering a valuable place to study the geology of Mars.
This $2.6 billion mission is NASA’s first astrobiology mission since the Viking probes of the 1970s and the landing of the rover comes as a breather for the beleaguered agency. The agency has suffered many budget cuts in the past few years which culminated in its 30-year-old space shuttle programme being cancelled while NASA had also cancelled its joint US-European missions to Mars, scheduled for 2016 and 2018, due to resource constraints.
The invaluable pictures that the rover has been sending back to Earth and which have flooded the Internet are taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) which when it becomes fully operational, scientists can use it to capture fine details with a resolution as high as 13.9 microns per pixel — several times finer than the width of a human hair.
Curiosity will communicate mainly through relays to three satellites orbiting Mars or through the Deep Space Network, a system of giant interconnected antenna dishes in Madrid, Spain, Canberra, Australia, and the Mojave Desert (USA). The rover carries ten pounds of Plutonium-238 dioxide as a heat source, to produce the onboard electricity needed to operate the rover and the instruments, and keep the rover safe from night-time frigid temperatures. A high-resolution camera on the orbiting 7-year-old Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, flying 211 miles above the Curiosity will keep a watch on the rover itself.
The Unpacking of Curiosity
- The mast will go up, with its cache of cameras; weather and radiation monitoring instruments are turned on; laser-camera combination that can destroy rocks up to 23 feet away and take readings of the ‘excited’ gases released.
- By day 10 all 10 instruments will have started working; Curiosity will take its first steps.
- By day 30 the seven-foot robotic arm will be tested by grabbing Martian soil for the first time to crush and deliver to the two rover mini-laboratories — Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) and Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin).
Curiosity : largest piece of instrument on Mars
- This is the largest piece of instrument landed by scientists on Mars. The Curiosity is car-sized and much bigger than its predecessors Spirit, Opportunity and Sojourner. Curiosity is twice as long and four times as heavy as Spirit which landed in 2004. Sojourner landed in 1997 as part of the Mars Pathfinder mission and was about the size of a microwave oven.
- Curiosity landed near the middle of Gale Crater. The landing system was like a sky crane heavy-lift helicopter. After a parachute (the size of a 16 storey building) slowed the rover’s descent towards Mars, a rocket-powered backpack lowered the rover during the final moments before landing instead of the airbag landing systems of previous Mars rovers.
- Curiosity carries 10 scientific instruments to examine rocks, soil and the atmosphere. A laser will vaporise patches of rock from a distance, and another instrument will search for organic compounds. Other instruments include mast-mounted cameras to study targets from a distance, arm-mounted instruments to study targets they touch, and deck-mounted analytical instruments to determine the composition of rock and soil samples acquired with a powdering drill and a scoop.
- Curiosity has six wheels. Each of the wheels has an independent motor. The two front and two rear wheels have individual steering motors. This steering allows the rover to turn 360-degrees at the same place as if turning on a pivot. The wheel diameter is double the wheel diameter on Spirit and Opportunity, which will help Curiosity surmount obstacles as high as 30 inches.
- Curiosity is nuclear battery enabled to operate farther from the equator without depending on solar power.