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Curiosity updates: What has the Mars rover been up to?


Brian Vadakin, contributor, bv111010@ohio.edu

After NASA retired the space shuttles and budget cuts led to the cancellation of the Constellation program — planned to be the shuttle program’s successor — many grieved that the United States had devalued space exploration as a national priority.

But while manned space flight may be the most exciting form of scientific research in outer space, it is by no means the only one.

Two months after the space shuttle Endeavour touched down for the last time, the Curiosity rover landed successfully on the surface of Mars after traveling approximately 350 million miles.

In this series, Beta Fish Magazine will keep readers informed about the rover’s progress, explain some of its many instruments and explore the possible implications of its findings. I am an avid follower of Curiosity, via Twitter (@MarsCuriosity), updates from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Youtube (http://www.youtube.com/user/JPLnews), and news releases. After this introduction, I’ll write briefer and more frequent updates on just what the rover is getting into with its robotic arm on the fourth planet from the Sun.

Curiosity isn’t the first rover NASA has sent to Mars — in fact, it’s not even the only one operating there right now. If you’ve been avid fans of space exploration for a while, you’ll remember Spirit and Opportunity. However, having the first “landers” to touch down on the planet is an achievement that belongs to the Soviet Union. The landing portions of Mars 2 and Mars 3 were fairly unsuccessful (Mars 2 crashed into the surface and Mars 3 only operated for 20 seconds), but they were the first.

Later U.S. missions were more successful, and included Viking 1 and Viking 2 (1976), Mars Pathfinder (1997), the Mars Exploration Rovers MER-A and MER-B (Spirit and Opportunity; 2004) and Phoenix (2008).

Notably, while most lander devices and rovers either failed or completed their mission and shut down, Spirit and Opportunity functioned well beyond their initial three-month mission. NASA stopped communicating with Spirit in 2011, but Opportunity is still completing scientific work after eight years of operation.

Unfortunately, Spirit and Opportunity could only do so much with their on-board instruments. With new technology, Curiosity may be able to answer questions that stumped previous rovers and make discoveries that produce entirely new mysteries.

Curiosity carries a large science payload that gives it the ability to retrieve soil samples from the surface and analyze them inside the rover. The tools for sample analysis include a mass spectrometer and a laser spectrometer. It’s also equipped with multiple cameras, including one that took color, high-definition video of the rover’s descent.

One of my personal favorites is an advanced laser spectrometer called the ChemCam — short for Chemistry and Camera Instrument. It uses laser pulses to vaporize thin layers of Martian rocks, and then the spectrometer analyzes the excited atoms.

 

With all these scientific instruments, Curiosity is performing its fair share of experiments. It’s the latest announcement, though, that has people talking. In an interview with NPR reporter Joe Palca, principal investigator John Grotzinger shared that NASA had received “really interesting” data from the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument.

However, NASA isn’t planning on sharing the details quite yet. As many can appreciate, the scientists working on the mission want to be absolutely sure of what they’ve discovered before releasing it to the public. However, we won’t have to wait too long — according to an article by http://www.examiner.com, NASA scientists could release the findings as soon as Dec. 3, at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

What do you think the Curiosity rover discovered in its analysis? What implications could the discovery have?

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