Secrets of Mars: Curiosity rover

A new rover has landed on Mars, ready to dig up clues as to whether the Red Planet ever was, or is, suitable for life. Elizabeth Howell offers a run-down on what this latest mission is hoping to find

The car-sized Curiosity rover, which is the centerpiece of the Mars Science Laboratory, has touched down on the Red Planet. It is carrying experiments on board that will take bits of Martian soil and put them through a suite of tests. Some samples will be baked and sniffed for gases. Others will have X-rays put through them to measure chemical composition.

Curiosity isn’t designed to find life, but it is sensitive to environments that could support life. For example, it will be looking for minerals formed in water.

All the while, the rover will carry a weather station and a radiation detector to track surface conditions. This will help researchers learn how safe the planet is for future human explorers.

“It’s a major step forward ... to unlock the mysteries of Mars in places that have never been accessible to humankind in the past,” said Doug McCuistion, the director of NASA’s Mars exploration program, in a July press conference about Curiosity.

Building from the past

Curiosity is bigger and can drive farther than previous Mars machines. NASA rovers Spirit and Opportunity landed in 2004 and were expected to last three months, but both survived and thrived for years.

At almost 3,000 “sols” or Martian days past its warranty date, Opportunity is still going strong and skimming the ring of a 22-kilometre crater, Endeavour. Spirit fell silent in 2010 after six years of operations, with milestones behind it such as climbing a mountain (Husband Hill). Both rovers also found evidence of Martian liquid water.

Other previous successful landing missions by NASA include the twin pioneering Viking spacecraft in 1976, the Pathfinder/Sojourner roving mission that lasted for nearly three months in 1997, and the Phoenix mission of 2008-2010.

Three spacecraft are currently orbiting the planet: NASA’s Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express.

A risky proposition

Humans have been visiting Mars for about 50 years, beginning with Russian and American flybys in the 1960s and continuing with the first successful orbiter (NASA’s Mariner) in 1971. The first successful lander was Russia’s Mars 3, which stopped working 20 seconds after touching down.

But these past successes were no guarantee that Curiosity would make it to the surface. In fact, far more missions have failed going to Mars than succeeded.

“Earth vs. Mars, if you will: For all the missions we’ve sent, [NASA is] right around 35, 40 per cent,” said McCuistion. “So Mars wins most of the time, which is why this is a tough business.”

In light of tight government budgets, NASA is currently re-evaluating its itinerary for Mars missions in years to come. Human missions are something that have been discussed for decades, but cost and safety concerns are among the obstacles that must be overcome.

Curiosity’s mission will be an important scout for human exploration since it will provide constant data on the current weather and radiation conditions on Mars, helping researchers understand what it will feel like to stand on the surface.

International co-operation

It’s wrong to paint Mars solely as a planet accessible to countries with landers and orbiters. Several nations, such as Canada, have sent scientific instruments on Mars missions, gathering data that their own scientists can use and learn from.

A group of Emirati students recently had the chance to work on Mars missions themselves. The first all-female group of interns from the Arab Youth Venture Foundation finished their work in July; among the programs they worked on were future Mars rovers.

Meanwhile, people all over the world can follow Mars Curiosity step by step as it marches on the Red Planet. NASA’s Twitter feed @MarsCuriosity will provide instant updates, and the agency will upload pictures and video to the mission website.