Curious? NASA Rover Curiosity Cruises onto Mars

Artistic representation of Curiosity on Mars. Courtesy of NASA.

Conceptualized by a 27-year-old graduate student, named by a 12-year-old middle school student, and immortalized in a vibrant Twitter feed, Curiosity marks the most ambitious mission ever flown to Mars. Equipped with a whole gamut of arguably the most complex and innovative scientific and analytical instruments to date, Curiosity has one main mission: to determine if microbial life could ever have survived on the now dry and dusty planet.

Although Curiosity will be roaming Mars for the next year and a half collecting and analyzing data, perhaps the most challenging part of the mission was simply landing the rover safely. To put it lightly, Curiosity is the largest rover ever sent to Mars: it weighs more than 2,000 pounds, has the dimensions of a small car, and carries an entire science laboratory inside of it. After more than half a year hurtling through space, the massive rover needed more innovative engineering than the usual airbags to cushion its landing on the red planet. Although some called it far-fetched, the solution was “analyzed, peer-reviewed, and tested the hell out of,” as Peter Theisinger, project manager of Curiosity, described in a press teleconference.

Plummeting into the Martian atmosphere at about 21,000 kilometers per hour, parachutes significantly slowed the vehicle in what engineers called the final “seven minutes of terror” before a descent stage detached from the rover, using steerable engines to slow the rover even further. Finally, in the last few seconds before landing, the crown jewel of the innovative landing strategy came into play: A sky-crane system, connected to the rover by a tethered rope, carefully lowered Curiosity onto the planet’s surface. Upon a successful touchdown, the descent stage cut away from the rover, and Curiosity surfed safely and triumphantly toward Gale Crater.

Artistic representation of Curiosity’s sky-crane landing system. Courtesy of NASA.

Following a successful start to the mission on Mars, Curiosity’s technology is just as impressive, boasting instruments that would make any laboratory on Earth envious. In order to first collect particles, Curiosity has the typical array of collection tools that allow it to pick up rocks and scoop sand, with one exciting, distinctive feature: a high-powered laser that vaporizes rocks. Called the ChemCam, the laser can shoot its target from as far away as 23 feet and is equipped not only to let Curiosity collect the thin layers of vaporized rock but also to identify the individual atoms of the vapor. Including a gas chromatograph, a mass spectrometer, and a turn-able laser spectrometer, all of these instruments essentially serve to break down the little bits of rock and sand into single molecules. Then, it will let scientists run a wide range of tests to analyze what Martian conditions were once like. Other instruments, such as an X-ray diffraction and fluorescence instrument, enable scientists to look at the minerals in rocks and solids and determine the bulk makeup of these particles. Furthermore, the Mars Hand Lens Imager can take extreme close-up images of the Martian surface, capturing details smaller than the width of a human hair.

On Mars, laser marks where Curiosity’s ChemCam vaporized segments of rock. Image courtesy of NASA.

While the rover carries the most complex and innovative instruments to date, the NASA mission is also pioneering an innovative mission back on Earth: using social media to keep the public interested and informed on Curiosity’s progress. As Curiosity journeyed through space, its over 1 million Twitter followers and Facebook fans were kept up-to-date on its progress. Upon landing on Mars, almost 100,000 people re-tweeted by-the-minute accounts of the rover’s progress, and an interplanetary broadcast of the song “Reach for the Stars” by popular artist stirred excitement in many observers. Never before has NASA space technology been so accessible to the general population.

Perhaps this is partially because NASA has never been so close to being able to announce news of extra-terrestrial life. “If we found life on Mars, even if it was very low forms of life…that would certainly be very significant in terms of how we saw ourselves,” says Professor Peter Parker, Director of Undergraduate Studies of Physics at Yale University. “Psychologically, I think that is a very important thing.”

As the winner of the Rover’s naming contest, 12-year-old Clara Ma wrote, “Curiosity is an everlasting flame that burns in everyone’s mind.” Indeed, with continued success, this mission could leave a legacy that burns forever.