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The new frontier – NASA’s Curiosity Rover uncovers the red planet

The aptly-named Curiosity Rover landed on Mars at 10:32pm on August 6th, parachuting to the ground inside Mars’s Gale Crater.  The one tonne rover, costing £1.6 billion is the same size as a Mini Cooper and looks much like a souped-up beach buggy.  During its ninety-eight week (that’s one Martian year) stay on the red planet, the rover will be exploring the Martian crater for signs of life-holding capabilities.

The lake bed-like crater may have held water billions of years ago and will give us some insight into the geological history of the planet.  Professor Sanjeev Gupta, from Imperial College London, who is in the US leading a rover team said, “With the extraordinary volume of data MSL (Mars Science Laboratory) can produce, we will be able to reconstruct how the rocks and climate of this region have changed through time.”  This is by far the most complex and courageous Mars expedition and the MSL mission has already bore sweet fruit, with the clearest Mars images ever seen, including the first colour image of its landscape sent back to us this week.  The hope is that the rover will uncover evidence that simple life forms were supported in the crater, even if this was a very, very long time ago.

Mars landscape


Mars colour image



How it works

Needless to say, the complexity of the software and the physical components used by the rover will be mind-boggling to most mere mortals.  I was most impressed with the vehicle’s ability to clean itself and camera lenses off for a better look after a dusty landing.  It hasn’t started moving yet but there are already some astounding photos available, courtesy of a panoramic camera with a magnifying imager able to reveal details smaller than a width of human hair.  A laser gun able to ‘zap’ matter up to thirty feet away will vaporise rocks and other material so their chemical data can be analysed on it’s own on-board laboratory.  The National Post called the images surprisingly ‘Earth-like’, comparing the landscape to the Mojave Desert in California.  Scientists were excited about the trenches where the rover will begin collecting samples when it finally extends it’s robotic arm.  In the meantime the Curiosity Rover has been testing the atmosphere for radiation, wind speed, direction and temperature.

The success of the mission so far, as well as Martian channels and tributaries that may have been created by flowing water have certainly whet appetites at NASA.  NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said the agency was now looking towards future missions to Mars, including manned exploration, so we could well see a couple humans taking the 352 million mile trip next time.




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