NASA Launch Biggest Martian Rover Yet

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December 4, 2011 by Dan Swinhoe

There have been over three dozen missions to Mars since man started his exploration of space.

Less than half have succeeded. Colleen Hartman, NASA’s assistant associate administrator for science called the Red Planet “the Bermuda Triangle of the solar system” and the “Death Planet”.

Despite the jinx the planet places on many missions bound for it, the allure and desire to send more probes, rovers and, one day, man are stronger now than they’ve ever been. Atop an Atlas V rocket, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, nicknamed ‘Curiosity,’ left Florida’s Cape Canaveral bound for Mars last week in search of life on Mars.

Part of Mars Exploration Program, which focuses on robotic exploration of Mars, the new rover is twice the size of previous rovers and the most sophisticated piece of machinery to ever be sent to the planet. Described as ‘a rover on steroids,’ Hartman said “It’s an order of magnitude more capable than anything we have ever launched to any planet in the solar system.”

Mars has been through dramatic climate changes as it orbited at varying distances from the Sun because it’s moons aren’t large enough to stabilise its tilt. The geology of those years is hidden in the rocks and scientists hope Curiosity will be able to help them create a history of the planet through studying its past.

“Everything we know about life and what makes a liveable environment is peculiar to Earth,” said astrobiologist Pamela Conrad of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California,  and a deputy lead scientist for the mission. “What things look like on Mars are a function of not only the initial set of ingredients that Mars had when it was made, but the processes that have affected Mars,” she said.

Speeding along at six miles per second on its 352-million-mile, eight and half month journey, the target once it arrives in Martian orbit is the foot of a mountain inside the Gale Crater. Satellite photos and observations have identified clay and minerals of sulphate, which indicate a wet history, and the best place to start looking for evidence of life. “Gale gives us a superb opportunity to test multiple potentially habitable environments and the context to understand a very long record of early environmental evolution of the planet,” said John Grotzinger, project scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

The mission’s main goal, to find evidence of life (past or present), is the first such aim since the Viking Probes, sent back in the 1970s. After those missions declared Mars a dead planet the case seemed closed, until recent findings showing proof that water, a necessity for life, did once exist there. The mission hopes to find the other chemicals needed for life on Earth; carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulphur.

“I hope we have more work than the scientists can handle. When we get to the surface, I expect them all to be overrun with data they’ve never seen before. I expect the public to have images, vistas that we’ve never seen before,” said Doug McCuistion, Director of NASA’s Mars exploration programme director.

Judging from the equipment on board, there will certainly be a huge amount of information for the boys at NASA to sift through. Curiosity is carrying ten scientific instruments that total 15 times the weight carried by theSpirit & Opportunity rovers. A seven foot arm with a drill and scoop on the end will take rock and soil samples to gauge the geology and look for microscopic evidence of life using onboard laboratory instruments, while another seven foot mast is equipped with laser-instruments to study objects from a distance and provide ample camera opportunities. The laser is the first time it will have been used on Mars, as will an X-Ray machine used to identify minerals in powder samples.

Once it’s landed, the rover should be able to deal with the sometimes difficult Martian terrain. Able to roll over obstacles up to 3/4 metre high, it’s expected to travel on average of 30 metres (98ft) per hour, but go up  to three times that in perfect conditions. The £1.6 Billion mission is set to last for two years, or one Martian year of 687 Earth days, but the Rover has a power supply that could last over a decade. This is thanks to the radioisotope power system that generates electricity from the heat of plutonium’s radioactive decay. It’s expected that most of the mechanisms aboard will wear out before the power does.

As well as looking for little green men, the mission also acts as a tester for man’s arrival. As Curiosity weighs around a ton, more than five times as much as the previous Spirit & Opportunity rovers, the usual cushioned airbag landing wouldn’t work. Instead the rover will descend through the atmosphere then deploy a parachute before lowering the upright vehicle by a tether to the surface, in a similar way to the Sky Crane’s used here on Earth. This precise landing means landing area targets are three quarters the size of previous missions, allowing the rocky areas surrounding Gale to be avoided safely. This accurate and safe deployment of heavy equipment is a tester for manned missions to the planet in years to come. There are also radiation and weather detectors that will help gauge how much future astronauts will need protecting. There are even plans for an app that give daily Martian weather updates.

NASA are keeping busy. The Launch of Curiosity is the first to Mars based mission in four years (The first rover in eight) and the third mission to fire up from Cape Canaveral since the retirement of the Space Shuttles over the summer earlier this year. The Juno probe is heading towards Jupiter, while the Grail probe should arrive at our moon on New Year’s Eve. And they aren’t the only ones. The Russians, after a 20-year hiatus from space exploration, launched Phobus-Grunt last week. The three year mission intended to reach Mars in 2013, touch down on Phobus (the larger of the planet’s two moons), collect a soil sample and fly it back to Earth. However, after launching, communication was lost and it’s still in orbit around the Earth.

Another planet that scientists think have water (ergo possibly life) is Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. But for now focus remains on the closest and most Earth-like planet in the Solar System. And while it seems very unlikely that astronauts will one day land on Mars and shake hands with the local lifeforms, finding any sort of life on the Red planet could end the question about us being the only life in the universe, and possibly even point to where life on this planet originates from.

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