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Curiosity Goes to Mars

November 22nd, 2011

Artist's concept of Curiosity on Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity Goes to Mars

By Jason Kendall

November 22, 2011 — Has there ever been life on Mars?  That’s one of the big questions astronomers have wanted to find out since, well, there have been people looking at Mars!

This Saturday, November 26th, at 9:30 AM (Eastern time), NASA is launching its next mission to Mars in an effort to find out. Aptly named “Curiosity”, the rover will seek out evidence of past life on Mars.

As with all other missions to the red planet, Curiosity won’t have any people on board.  It’s just not possible right now to send people to Mars.  Mars is so far away that it takes 8 months to get there (a whole school year!). So, we send the next best thing: tough, smart robots that can tell us a lot without risking people on a long and difficult trip.

Curiosity image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity is about the size of a small car and is the biggest rover ever sent to Mars. It’s armed with a full on-board laboratory, amazing imagers, a laser to vaporize distant rocks to see what’s inside them, and a little nuclear power plant to keep it warm and running.

Artist's concept of Curiosity at work. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This is a one-way trip, so it’ll spend its days performing its job and beaming back its findings to Earth by radio. And it will be joining the three other rovers still there from previous missions: Sojourner, Spirit, and Opportunity. They blazed the trail for Curiosity, and furthered the science that could show that life did exist on Mars.

So, how exactly is it going to do that?

When Curiosity lands on Mars on August 15, 2012, it’ll touch down at the bottom of Gale crater.  Gale crater has a high mountain in it which is really old, and the sides of the mountain look like they’ve been shaped and soaked in water. Curiosity will drive around there on its six big wheels and take samples of the Martian soil.

Gale crater on Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/UA

The life it’ll look for is actually long dead and gone. And if life ever arose on Mars, it probably never went past microscopic life — things like germs that you use hand sanitizer to get off your hands after being outdoors all day.

So, Curiosity won’t find bugs, critters or little green men on Mars, but we hope that there are rock deposits with stuff left behind long ago by microbes in the dirt.   If you want to see the kinds of life up close, you can get a microscope and take some lake or pond water and look at that.  There’s a whole bunch floating around in just a drop.

When something lives and dies, even things as small as bacteria and germs, they change the environment in which they lived. Curiosity’s electronic sniffers and eyes can see the tiny leavings from ancient microbes in the Martian soil.

Why are we hopeful that we’ll find evidence of past life?

Well, here’s something: what do fish swim in, we drink, and is on 70% of the Earth’s surface?  Water. Where there’s liquid water, there’s almost always life.  And those previous rover missions, among others, have shown signs of water on Mars. Mars actually seems to have had a LOT of water on its surface 3 billion years ago.  Enough to make shallow lakes, ponds, rivers and possibly an ocean across the entire Northern hemisphere! Curiosity hopes to take it one giant leap farther by seeking evidence of past life in the rocks that may have been covered in water long ago.

So, snuggle up under the covers with a leftover turkey sandwich this Saturday morning and watch the launch live on NASA TV . You can also learn more about the Mars program here. ( HTE note: the Mars Program link is really cool! ).

Any questions? Jason’s happy to answer them! Just submit them in the comment/question box below!

Jason Kendall is Here There Everywhere’s Space Contributor! Among the many hats he wears, Jason is also a New York City Solar System Ambassador with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and an Astronomy teacher at William Paterson University in New Jersey. You can also find him in the middle of big open fields many nights leading “star watching” events. And though he loves telling you about Mars, Jason’s favorite planet is actually … Mercury!

Oh, and here are some really great, short videos by NASA about Mars. Plus, even more if you click here to go to all of NASA’s video’s about Mars.

This is NASA’s animation of how they envision the mission going:

This one’s about what it takes to get to Mars:

This one’s about why Mars looks red:

Click here to go to NASA’s website to see even more videos about this mission and Mars.

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29 Comments on “Curiosity Goes to Mars”

  • Jason Kendall says:

    Launch was successful this morning! Curiosity is off to Mars!

  • Ken says:

    Hello this is a day after my birthday it lands

  • Ken says:

    Do u think it will find something

  • Jason Kendall says:

    It’s my feeling that it’ll find many things. The amazing thing about looking for life on Earth, is that you find it in the strangest and most extreme places: deep under the desert rocks in the Atacama Desert where it hasn’t rained for a very long time, at the bottom of the ocean on hydrothermal vents where the seawater is over 400 degrees with no sunlight and no oxygen, on even samples of the Surveyor missions brought back to Earth by the Apollo astronauts. Life has a way of adapting to where it finds itself. It basically needs heat, water and a food source (even if that food is certain kinds of rocks!) Spirit, Opportunity, Phoenix, Sojourner and Viking all found some aspect of things required for life on Mars. Now, I think Curiosity will find good evidence for past life on Mars. I think it’s better than 50/50 that it’s there. But we don’t know. That’s why we’re going. To see if that idea is right. That’s what science is all about: you gather evidence and observations and make up reasonable explanations. If your explanation is a good one, it raises more questions, which lead to more detailed observations and experiments. We are at the point where the observations and evidence for the conditions for life on Mars are so intriguing that we’re willing to bet a lot of money and time to actually see if life once was there.

  • Claudia says:

    Jason, Can we send a rover with a video camera attached to it into a black hole to see what’s in there? Thanks! Arlo

  • Claudia says:

    Hi, Arlo. Unfortunately, we can’t get to black holes. The closest known one would take over a million years to get there with current spaceships. And even if you could get there, black holes are things which by definition, once you go
    in, you never come out. Nothing ever comes out. The gravity is so strong
    that nothing can overcome it, not even a beam of light.

  • Nathan says:

    1. THey shouldn’t spend that much money on a trip if the rover could turn over or break. Anything could happen.
    2. Why would you spend that much money on a rover when you’re trying to send a person after?
    3.I wouldn’t want to go to space because you lose the ability to use your muscles if you dont work out, I don’t see how you work out with no gravity.

  • Tori says:

    1. I think this is a waste of money. I think this because this could possily break.

    2. If i could ask someone on this mission one question, i wouls ask “why do you think this a good use of hard earned money, and time?”.

  • Jason Kendall says:

    The reason it’s not a waste of money is the following: back in 1492, when Columbus petitioned Queen Isabella of Portugal for money to set sail across uncharted waters to find a route to India that was shorter, everyone thought he was crazy. Sailors wouldn’t sign up because they thought dragon were out there and that they would fall off the edge of the Earth. Also, courtiers from Queen Isabella’s court had better things to do with their money, like fight wars with the French and English. Also, fast ships, like Columbus’ ship, was needed for regular trade for the royal Portuguese navy. It was dangerous, expensive, and many people back then thought Columbus would never return, sinking in the middle of a storm or beached on an unknown shore to be killed by savages. But, seeing the possibility that there was money in it, and prestige if he succeeded, Queen Isabella supported Columbus on his great exploration. It was one of the first steps across the waves to find a New World. Curiosity may very well break; nothing is certain. Curiosity may very well crash on arrival. But the act of exploration is so important for humanity that we are driven to go out there. Many wish to stay at home, and keep those home fires burning, worried and praying for the safe return of the explorers. But every advance in civilization, and every advance in thinking, and every great step in economics, and every great step in technology begins with someone who is willing to risk what they have or their lives to go somewhere no one has ever been to before. One day, Mars may be a home for humans, especially as our population keeps expanding. Mars could be changed into a place like Earth. But, we don’t just load up a spaceship and go. We send probes to learn for us, and tell us what to expect upon arrival. Curiosity is the biggest first step in that direction.

    On a completely practical note, the building, testing and launching of Curiosity provided thousands of jobs all across the country. And these jobs created new technologies that never existed before, which will be shared with industry to help them wherever they need to use it to create more jobs. So, even if it does crash, the effort itself of building drives our economy, helps inspire kids and adults that their friends and neighbors and country are doing something new, special and challinging, and finally, going to Mars serves to focus our best and most noble instincts and ideals to walk and learn about an undiscovered world.

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