Thursday, August 23, 2012

Mission To Mars!

As you've probably heard by now, NASA's newest six-wheeled rover Curiosity landed on Mars this month.  No small feat.  There were so many things that could have gone wrong, and didn't.  Instead of disappointment at what might have been, we have an awesome robotic machine tearing up the Red Planet's soil, taking samples, pictures, and data of all sorts.  Outstanding!

Curiosity was launched from Earth on the Atlas V Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle on November 26, 2011.  It landed in the Gale Crater on Mars on August 6, 2012, after traveling 354 million miles to get there.  Not only did it make it there, it landed within a mile and a half of its target landing spot, which is a damn fine bit of accuracy for something that far away.  Curiosity is scheduled to explore the planet for at least 687 Earth days, or one Martian year, and cover a distance of 3.1 by 12 mi miles.  It's nuclear powered, and has the fuel to function for about four Earth years, so we may see more of it than just what's planned.

Atlas V Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle © by Official US Air Force

I've put together some links and resources to follow Curiosity's mission there.  NASA (Twitter handle @NASA) is the ultimate source of all things Curiosity, but not the only one.  The NASA Jet Propulsion Lab (Twitter handle @NASAJPL) manages most of the robotic missions exploring Earth, the solar system and the universe, including this one to Mars.  Curiosity itself shares a lot of information, with the Twitter handle @MarsCuriosity, on Facebook, and on Google +.  Of course, it's not live tweeting and posting from Mars, but don't tell it that.

It has already sent back some amazing footage, including the hair-raising decent onto the surface of Mars, and the first 360 degree panoramic shot of the surface.  Even more amazing is seeing ourselves from the perspective of another planet.

Earth From Mars © NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

NASA named Curiosity's landing site on Mars for the late science fiction author Ray Bradbury, calling it the Bradbury Landing Site.  If only he could have seen it happen.  Bradbury was hugely instrumental in sparking and nurturing our interest in the Red Planet.  I think he would have loved to see these wonderful pictures sent back from the planet he wrote so much about.

Wall of Gale Crater © NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

So what's in store for Curiosity in the future?  Well, besides the beautiful pictures of the Martian landscape and the view from there into our galaxy, we can expect quite a bit more.  Its mission is to explore the planet's "habitability," to determine if it ever had an environment that could sustain life.  Most of this research will be conducted with soil analysis, studying rocks, soils, and Martian geology to understand chemical composition and forms of carbon there.  This will help assess what the environment was like there in the past, and could lead to the discovery of life there.  At the very least, it should tell us if life on Mars was ever even a possibility.

Wall of Gale Crater © NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

In addition to exploring the geological and mineralogical composition of the surface and near-surface, it will study and catalog the organic carbon compounds and chemical building blocks of life (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorous, and sulfur) on Mars, giving us an understanding of the biological processes that have happened there.  It will also study the atmospheric evolution processes from the present state and distribution of any water and carbon dioxide it finds there.  This will go a long ways toward determining if there was ever life on Mars.

Wiggle in the Gravel © NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity is much larger than the previous rovers we've sent there.  It also has over ten times the mass of scientific instruments they had, so its capacity for learning and discovery are far greater than ever before.  It has more missions than they did, and more capacity to send its findings back to its home planet.  Until the next mission is launched in 2016, it's our best shot at discovering life on Mars.

So is there life there?  Was there ever?  Were the conditions ever right for it?  Some folks think so.  In fact, some think life on Earth actually originated from Mars.  With Curiosity, we may soon find out the answers to those questions and many more.

Update:  Found a wonderful film/animation of how Spirit and Opportunity got to Mars.  Well worth a view, preferably full-screen.

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