By Kal KaurDiscoveryExplore CuriosityCuriosity’s MissionReferences
Monday 6th August became quite a monumental day for NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory as the agency celebrated the landing of the $2.5 billion Curiosity Rover on Mars, a mission considered to be one of its kind in the history of interplanetary exploration. The robotic probe was encapsulated by a heat shield as it made contact with the ground surface on Mars through the planet’s atmosphere at 21,000 KM per hour (see video below).
The surface features to Mars such as impact craters of volcanoes, deserts, and polar ice caps can also be seen on planet Earth, which has sparked the question for years as to whether there was once life on Mars. The curiosity mission is aiming to explore the possibility of the Red Planet’s past, to identify the warm and wet periods that may have manifested on this planet and whether microbial may have survived. At the moment, it will be difficult to estimate the duration of possible warm and wet time periods on this planet and whether these conditions became habitable to support life on Mars.
Nasa’s Curiosity Rover robot is roughly the same size as a four-by-four vehicles, though Curiosity stands tall at 7 feet and is 9 feet wide, weighing almost 1 tonne, and has been designed to have six wheels applied for mountain climbing. To make curiosity more intuitive, it has been engineered with an integrated body, brain (central control system), arms and legs. The hands to this robot, commonly known as an end effector, are made up of a drill to break up rock structures. There is a camera on this robot that can support measurements of rock samples by collecting high-definition images, and sophisticated science tools to isolate organic compounds, which will help the researchers move one step closer to identifying whether Mars could have supported terrestrial life.
The main body to Curiosity is encapsulated via a heat shield to help protect the internal structure to this robot. There is the obvious question as to how long Curiosity will be able to continue its expedition on Mars, and the answer...hopefully, with the RGT (a nuclear battery with a ten-year lifespan), this robot should have an extended mission for longer than two years. The power pack that resembles a tail-like structure helps pump a heat flow to the computer and internal electronic systems to keep these components fully functional in a planetary atmosphere that has an average temperature of approximately 80 degrees F (minus 60 degrees C).
There is also a drilling system to this robot that grinds the solid rock samples into power. The robot arm aids the delivery of the rock sample through a funnel into the robot’s laboratory to analyse the material to identify 1) does the sample contain any minerals, and 2) does the sample indicate any trace of organic compounds, hence would this have evolved into an environment to inhabit life forms such as microbes. The following animation by the NASA jet Propulsion Laboratory in California depicts the key events to this robot whilst on Mars.
The back to the robot is the main communication system and carries high- and low-gain Antennas along with an Observation Tray. To allow for smooth turning and reversal manoeuvres by the robot, the engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory built hazard avoidance cameras to the backside of this machine, which will also help keep a ground view for the robot throughout the mission.
Curiosity’s neck and head components are made of an array of cameras that effectively become the eyes to this robot to give a head-height view of the planet’s environment. The robot supports a rock vaporising laser gun that can zap rocks in front of it to clear the path ahead and give a less challenging surface to drive over without impact to the mechanical body.
The research team are stressing the need for Curiosity to explore Gale, a crater on Mars located near the northwest part of the Aeolis quadrangle and is estimated to be approximately 3.5–3.8 billion years old. Exploring the composition of rocks in this crater and the sedimentary rocks formed from eroded elements could reveal promising data on the evolution of ancient Mars. Scientist have emphasised the need to study the Gale Crater as it shows possible signs that water may have occupied the planet at some point during its early history. We can be sure of one thing, if there was life on Mars then it would have needed watery environments to begin and evolve. One closer step to knowing whether there was life on this planet will involve detection of organic molecules such as amino acids and to determine biological features from rock samples. This exploration program is only at its early stages of gathering data about conditions on Mars.
- Mars Science Laboratory
- Curiosity - The Next Mars Rover
- Learn About Me: Curiosity