Curiosity Goes to Mars
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 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.
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.
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: