With less than 105 days left until the Mars Science Laboratory touches down on Mars there are plenty of things to be excited about. This is going to be the rover after Phoenix that will be doing some extraordinary science on the surface of Mars.
Unlike any of its predecessors, the Mars Science Laboratory, otherwise known as Curiosity, will have an Atlas V launch vehicle to accommodate its enormous size. The launch vehicle it self is as tall as a 19-story building and the core booster alone generates 3.8 million newtons of thrust! Obviously if it needs a vessel of that size, it is quite large in its self. It is roughly the length of a small SUV and the height of the average basketball player (For all the number lovers: 3m long, 2.2m high). In its entirety it has a mass of: 900 kilograms! Due to its size it can’t get power in the same way Sprit and Opportunity did. Instead of using solar panels, this behemoth will use a radioisotope of plutonium that produces heat when decaying in turn generate power.
This awesome setup was created to house some of the coolest instruments to ever be sent to another planet. It is carrying 13 main instruments separated into five main categories: cameras, spectrometers, radiation detectors, environmental sensors, and atmospheric sensors. Not going to extricating detail, I am going to highlight some of the coolest features. The sample analysis suite has a mass spec. to separate elements and compounds by mass, a gas chromatograph to vaporize and sort the resulting gases, and finally a laser spec. to measure the abundance of various isotopes of the elements. The cameras are all really cool, they let the rover “see” in 3-D space allowing for depth perception and the ability to properly move the extendable arm. Speaking of the arm, NASA engineers tried to make it very versatile in terms of flexibility and manoeuvrability.
The most important part of Curiosity is the science that it will be doing on the surface of the red planet. Its mission has four main goals: Characterize the climate, Characterize the geology, Try to determine if life ever existed on Mars, and to prepare for human exploration. Of course these are broad, overarching goals and NASA has defined objectives, which are much more specific. They are listed here (Source: http://marsprogram.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/mission/science/objectives/)
- Determine the nature and inventory of organic carbon compounds
- Inventory the chemical building blocks of life (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorous, and sulphur)
- Identify features that may represent the effects of biological processes
Geological and geochemical objectives:
- Investigate the chemical, isotopic, and mineralogical composition of the Martian surface and near-surface geological materials
- Interpret the processes that have formed and modified rocks and soils
Planetary process objectives:
- Assess long-timescale (i.e., 4-billion-year) atmospheric evolution processes
- Determine present state, distribution, and cycling of water and carbon dioxide
Surface radiation objective:
- Characterize the broad spectrum of surface radiation, including galactic cosmic radiation, solar proton events, and secondary neutrons
I am really quite excited for this rover to reach the surface. NASA is taking the next step towards putting humans on a different planet and forging further in the quest for knowledge. Maybe this will answer the big questions of life on Mars, but even if it doesn’t, Curiosity will provide a deep insight on the inner workings of the red planet. Of all the heavenly bodies, Mars for me holds the most charm because there are numberless possibilities hidden in the iron rich soil.