Curiosity lands on Mars – What next?

Ajith Vijay Kumar

The mission has been accomplished. Nuclear-powered rover is on Mars’s surface. The event is undoubtedly one of the biggest technological advancements of the decade and marks the crucial first concrete step in mankind’s ‘Mission Mars’.

NASA chief Charles Bolden described the moment best when he said, “The wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze the trail for human footprints on Mars."

The robotic explorer Curiosity’s success is indeed a milestone in our search for the unknown. With a $2.5 billion budget, Curiosity is a very costly gamble, which scientists hope will pay off by way of astronaut landings on the red planet.

Curiosity Mission Objectives

Let’s get this clear. Curiosity is not looking for signs of life like living or fossil microorganisms. The mission is aimed at collecting data on the presence of the basic ingredients essential for life like oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, and sulphur and phosphorous. It will also determine the nature of organic carbon compounds present, if any.

In simpler terms, Curiosity’s mission is to check out Mars for its ‘habitability’ and its ability to support small forms of life like microbes.

Besides looking for biological ingredients required for life, Curiosity will be curious to find out more about the composition of the Martian surface besides determining the present state, distribution, and cycling of water and carbon dioxide.

Why this is important? Life, as we humans understand it, is based on certain building blocks, which need to be present for it to take root and flourish. If Curiosity delivers the good news - the remotest possibility of habitability of Mars, it would hasten the research and speed up our march to conquer the red frontier.

The landing site on the Gale Crater was carefully chosen as the rover is ‘within driving distance’ of areas with water signs - the inner side of the crater’s mountain where earlier orbital mission’s had suspected the presence of clay, indicating a wet history.

Gizmos Onboard – The Tool Kit

The nuclear-powered rover has an array of hit-tech instruments that have been designed keeping in mind the Martian surface and the demands of the mission. It has 10 science instruments including ones capable of analysing samples of atmosphere, soil, rocks on the spot and beaming results back to the mission control facility at Jet Propulsion Laboratory located in California.

The rover is armed with a drill and scoop apparatus on its robotic arm to gather the samples, which will then be passed through a sieve before being parcelled to laboratory situated inside the sports car sized rover.

Also present is a laser gun that can target a rock from over 20 feet away to create a spark. The spectral image created in the process will be analyzed by a special telescope to decipher the mineral`s chemical composition.

Mission Time Span

Powered by a radioisotope system that generates electricity from the heat of plutonium`s radioactive decay, the Curiosity is expected to have an operating lifespan of at least a full Martian year (687 Earth days).

The First Drive

Curiosity has landed on Mars’ surface but it will be days before it starts to move from the location and seeks out unchartered territory. Termed as ‘first drive phase’, during this period scientists will conduct tests to ensure that all is well with the rover after travelling for millions of kilometres through intergalactic space.

After confirming that rover has landed on even surface, scientists will check all the scientific instruments present on board, deploy antenna for communications links. Only after the Curiosity is 100% fit to travel will it start on its Mars’ mission.

A big concern during its journey through Mars will be rover stability. It is designed to handle steep cliffs (up to 50 degrees) with a ground clearance of almost 2 feet but rover’s behaviour can get unpredictable.

Although the rover is designed to can travel up to 90 meters (295 feet) per hour, on an average, it will not travel more than 30 meters (98 feet) per hour due to various variables like terrain quality, power level etc.

Habitability and Reality

Although Mars rover is expected to send in laboratory reports on Mars’ habitability, a definitive answer can be arrived at only after a future mission flies Martian rocks and soil back to Earth for detailed examination.

Although, the very basis of our search “looking for life as we know it” can be questioned, but do we have any other option? Can what that is unknown be searched?

If indeed scientists manage to fly back a Mars probe, the logical next step – man on Mars?

It took just ten years for man to progress from Luna 2 probe to moon (1959) to Neil Armstrong setting foot in 1969.

Mars is no moon and it is farther too, but we as a species seem to be ready for the big leap.

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