No one seems entirely certain what the future holds for NASA anymore. Opinions vary from the “Obama is going to shut them down” crowd to the “they’ll have humans back in space next year” bunch. For now they’re all about robots, and over the Thanksgiving weekend they sent a new one to Mars.
On November 26th America’s space agency launched the Mars Science Laboratory. Inside the Atlas V rocket launched from Cape Canaveral 10:02 a.m. EST is a robotic rover named Curiosity. It’s the size of a car. It’s the biggest, most advanced package sent to Mars yet. It even has a laser.
Here’s NASA’s official description of the rover’s mission…
Curiosity’s ambitious science goals are among the mission’s many differences from earlier Mars rovers. It will use a drill and scoop at the end of its robotic arm to gather soil and powdered samples of rock interiors, then sieve and parcel out these samples into analytical laboratory instruments inside the rover. Curiosity carries 10 science instruments with a total mass 15 times as large as the science-instrument payloads on the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Some of the tools are the first of their kind on Mars, such as a laser-firing instrument for checking the elemental composition of rocks from a distance, and an X-ray diffraction instrument for definitive identification of minerals in powdered samples.
To haul and wield its science payload, Curiosity is twice as long and five times as heavy as Spirit or Opportunity. Because of its one-ton mass, Curiosity is too heavy to employ airbags to cushion its landing as previous Mars rovers could. Part of the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft is a rocket-powered descent stage that will lower the rover on tethers as the rocket engines control the speed of descent.
The mission’s landing site offers Curiosity access for driving to layers of the mountain inside Gale Crater. Observations from orbit have identified clay and sulfate minerals in the lower layers, indicating a wet history.
Precision landing maneuvers as the spacecraft flies through the Martian atmosphere before opening its parachute make Gale a safe target for the first time. This innovation shrinks the target area to less than one-fourth the size of earlier Mars landing targets. Without it, rough terrain at the edges of Curiosity’s target would make the site unacceptably hazardous.
The innovations for landing a heavier spacecraft with greater precision are steps in technology development for human Mars missions. In addition, Curiosity carries an instrument for monitoring the natural radiation environment on Mars, important information for designing human Mars missions that protect astronauts’ health.
NASA says this will help pave the way for a manned mission to the red planet, but even if that were to happen, it’s probably still decades off, with the agency’s current funding. They’ll still learn a lot over the course of this new rover’s 2-year mission to seek out new life and new civilizations… whoops no that’s Star Trek. Probably the Mars Science Lab will look at a bunch of rocks.
And that’s really the problem. Man has ventured out into space and so far, found nothing. You can’t keep tax payers interested in rocks, and so the space agency’s funding has continued to drop. It’s a short-sighted view of space exploration, but it’s one held by far too many in the US government. What we really need are some Martians, to get people excited about space exploration again. Until they show up, all we’ll have is robot rovers and rocks.