At 5.31pm (NZT) on 6 August 2012, NASA’s Curiosity rover landed on Mars. The touchdown represented a stunning scientific achievement for the scientists and engineers involved in the project to get the car-sized travelling laboratory from Earth to our planetary neighbour.
The rover landed safely inside the Gale Crater beside a Martian mountain provisionally named Mt Sharp to begin 2 years of scientific detective work. Scientists believe the landing area is geologically diverse and are keen to sample various rocks in the area. In addition, they will also be keeping an eye out for any microbial life on Mars.
Possibility of finding life on Mars
A press release from NASA says Curiosity will begin investigating an area with a wet history inside Gale Crater that might at one point have offered an environment favourable for microbial life.
“Earlier missions have found that ancient Mars had wet environments,” says Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Programme at NASA Headquarters. “Curiosity takes us the next logical step in understanding the potential for life on Mars.”
Professor Craig Cary of Waikato University studies life in extreme environments like the Dry Valleys of Antarctica. He says the possibility of finding life on Mars is “absolutely there”.
“For life, you need water and you need a source of energy. The problem on Mars is the availability of water. All life forms need water, but the question is, at what level? We know there are organisms that can live in ice, for example, because ice has a tendency to create little channels that remain liquid even though the rest of the ice is frozen. Antarctic researchers have found bacteria that are hundreds of thousands of years old, dormant but still alive, in these channels. So, if there’s permafrost or ice underground, it’s a possibility.
“We know there are bacteria that can live in what would appear to us a very dry environment. Certain minerals attract water in what we call a mono-molecular layer – just a thin film of water across the surface of the mineral, but that’s enough for them to access. Although it seems like dry rock, for bacteria, it can be quite a lush environment.”
A long-running research project has studied how lichens and mosses manage to survive Antarctica’s sub-zero temperatures, find out more in this article, Life in the freezer.
Tools and instruments used on Curiosity
Curiosity will use tools (including a scoop, drill and sieve) on an extending 2-metre-long robotic arm to examine and deliver samples from Martian rocks and soils into laboratory instruments inside the rover that can analyse chemical and mineral composition. A laser instrument will use its beam to induce a spark on a target and read the spark’s spectrum of light to identify chemical elements in the target.
Other instruments on the rover will examine the surrounding environment from a distance or by direct touch with the arm. The rover will check for the basic chemical ingredients for life and for evidence about the energy available for life. It also will assess factors that could be hazardous for life, such as the radiation environment.
The rover is also taking lots of photos – several stunning images of a dry streambed and various rocks have already been captured. According to NASA, this mission is a precursor for future manned missions to Mars. President Obama set a challenge for humans to reach the red planet in the 2030s.
Death of legend
American astronaut and the first person to walk on the Moon, Neil Alden Armstrong, lived to see the Mars rover touch down but passed away on 25 August 2012 at the age of 82. Many of you reading this will be too young to remember the Moon landing on 21 July 1969, but the event gripped the world. Families and neighbours clustered around black and white television sets to watch as Mission Commander Neil Armstrong descended the ladder from the Apollo 11 Lunar Module. Every major newspaper ran the historic landing as front-page news. As Armstrong set his left foot on the surface of the Moon, he spoke a line that would become immortalised for all time:
That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.Neil Armstrong
Neil Armstrong and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin spent more than 2 hours exploring the lunarscape, while Michael Collins remained in orbit in the Apollo 11 Command Module.
Within weeks of its arrival inside the Gale Crater, Curiosity discovered what appeared to be an ancient streambed, suggesting that water once flowed in large volumes across the Martian surface. And, not long after that, mission scientists revealed another exciting finding: Billions of years ago, a nearby area known as Yellowknife Bay was part of a lake that could have supported microbial life.
Curiosity's mission was originally meant to be for two years, however within a few months of the landing, in December 2012, NASA announced that the mission was extended indefinitely.
On August 6, 2013, Curiosity played Happy Birthday to You to mark the first year of its Martian landing. This was the first time for a song to be played on another planet and the first time music was transmitted between two planets.
Since December 2016 the rover has been unable to use its drill. The drill allows the robot to access the interiors of rocks and without this capability, the rover is mostly limited to analyzing surface material such as sand. As of late June 2018, the Curiosity rover has traveled over 19.09 kilometers and climbed over 327 meters in elevation.
Another Mars landing
On Tuesday 28 November 2018 New Zealand time, the NASA InSight lander touched down on Mars. The lander is now located on the Elysium Planitia, a still, flat region on Mars, where it’s set to study seismic waves and heat deep below the surface of the Red Planet for a planned two-year mission.
For updates on this mission see these 2 articles:
These citizen science projects could also be used in an astronomy unit focused on the planet Mars:
- The Planet Four project wants help from citizen scientists to help explore the surface and weather of the Mars south polar region.
- Use the AI4Mars project to help scientists train Mars rovers how to classify Martian terrain.
Tests carried out on Curiosity rover will analyse rocks from Mars for the basic chemical ingredients of life. Your students may like to try this activity, Is anything out there in which they work out which planets could have life.
For a summary of key findings from the Curiousity rover, read Ancient Mars Lakes & Laser Blasts: Curiosity Rover's 10 Biggest Moments in 1st 5 Years.
For more information about Curiosity and images and video of Mars, go to this page on the NASA website.
Read about the next rover that NASA will send to Mars in 2020 in this article. It will carry seven carefully-selected instruments to conduct unprecedented science and exploration technology investigations on the Red Planet.
The NASA Mars InSight Mission website provides a number of animations and useful infographics to explore the technology of getting the lander to Mars and the planned work for the mission.