Science News: Curiosity's Mission to Mars

The NASA rover is looking for signs of life on the Red Planet

by Catherine McNiff

Curiosity

Curiosity at Gale Crater on Mars where the first scoop sampling occurred. Source: NASA.

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After a 9-month, 352-million-mile trip through space, the car-sized, $2.5 billion robot built by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory landed on Mars on Aug. 5, 2012, in dramatic fashion. Unlike previous rover touchdowns, which involved air-bag supported crash landings, Curiosity descended in a more ladylike fashion by parachute, retrorocket, and sky crane. Once happily ensconced on the Red Planet, the one-ton robot got right to work collecting air and soil samples and sending the data back to Earth to be analyzed. Curiosity's mission is to assess whether Mars ever supported life—"to determine the planet's habitability."

Quite A Catch

Outfitted with the highest-tech scientific equipment, nuclear-powered Curiosity's on-board suite includes three cameras (Mastcam, ChemCam, MAHLI), lasers, an x-ray spectrometer, telescope, and a drill. With these and other instruments, Curiosity's potential is impressive: identifying isotope ratios, which will shed light on the history of Mars's atmosphere and water; rock gathering to quantify minerals and measure composition; photographing to preserve the minutest details; vaporizing Martian material to detect atoms; characterizing the radiation environment at Mars's surface in order to plan for human exploration and habitation; and finding subsurface hydrogen, which indicates the presence of water. This unprecedented data collection is then beamed via the NASA Deep Space Network (DSN) to scientists in Maryland, California, Canada, New Mexico, as well as international collaborators in Spain and Russia, who contributed instruments to the scientific payload.

Four months into a 2-year prime mission, Curiosity has already sent home 23,000 raw images and tons of scientific data. So far, analysis has not revealed organic material, the carbon-containing "building blocks of life." Still, scientists are raving at the efficiency of Curiosity's data gathering and reveling in all of the first-times. Just getting there in one piece was a huge accomplishment that sets the stage for future missions to Mars.

Something to Tweet About

Curiosity is clearly a magnificent character, and quite proud of herself, sending back self-portraits at regular intervals. NASA says that is routine; scientists use the high-resolution photos to check for signs of wear or other potential problems. Nor is she shy; you can get to know her and learn about her impressive exploits by following her on Facebook and Twitter: http://www.facebook.com/marscuriosity and http://www.twitter.com/marscuriosity.

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