Apart from the Games of the XXX Olympiad in London, another subject dominated the news at the beginning of this month: The landing of “Mars Science Laboratory” or “Curiosity” on our neighboring planet Mars.
The planning of this mission began in 2003, employs 400 scientists and cost US$ 2.5 billion. Unlike the previous rovers, Curiosity is considerably bigger and contains more analytical devices to allow the researchers to gather deep insight into Mars’ geology and climate. This fact was the reason, why the airbag system used in former missions for approaching the landing sites could not be applied here. Instead a complicated combination of heat shield, parachute, retrorockets and a so called “sky crane” (see picture) was used to decelerate the rover from its travelling velocity of 5,900 meters per second to a standstill on the surface.
Now Curiosity is performing its first steps in a research activity that could very well last for a decade. Chief scientist in the Mars Science Laboratory mission is John Grotzinger, a geologist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. He and his colleagues decide which path the rover should take for its inaugural drive. One of the objectives is to find out where, when and in what amount there was water on Mars, as well as where it went. This together with further geological studies, this could prove that at some point in history, Mars had a habitable atmosphere. If so, why is it not habitable anymore? This question could also be interesting for life on earth, since an intense climate change could as well kill life on earth as we know it. So the studies on Mars will probably help us to understand the effects of e.g. greenhouse gases and pollution on our own planet better.
Due to the nuclear power supply of Curiosity, the researchers are in no hurry to do their experiments and can decide which tests to perform first and they might even take a detour before they go for the final goal, the ascent to Aeolis Mons or Mount Sharp. The mountain in the center of Gale Crater, the landing site, is 5,500 meters high offering layered rocks, which represent hundreds of millions of years of Martian history. If everything goes according to plan, these tests are a big leap towards the initial question whether there was life on Mars in the past.
But even if this mission does not have an immediate effect on life on earth, it definitely has one on Grotzinger. Because of Mars’ different rotational period compared to earth, the researcher needs to adapt to Martian daylight, which means starting every workday 40 minutes later than the one before. Good luck with that.
http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/fact_sheets/mars-power-heating.pdf Retrieved August 19, 2012.
E. Hand, Nature 2012, 488, 16-17; 137-138; 262-263.