Guest Post – Curiosity: The Little Rover that Could

Emma is one of my regular guest bloggers. I feel really thrilled about the possibility to post one educating post of this great blogger once a month over the next couple of months. Thank you so much, Emma, for sharing these great posts with us! If you would like to check out the previous guest posts, this amazing blogger wrote for me, head over here.

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In science, old stories become history, and the future becomes a new mystery. The Spirit and Opportunity rovers that were sent to traverse Mars’s landscape have faded out of mind. Spirit’s reign is over due to dust storms blocking its solar panels, and while Opportunity explores one side of Mars, our new focus, Curiosity, explores the other. The names of the rovers fit the progression of science, in a way. In the beginning it was just the spirit of discovery that spurred us on. Later opportunities presented themselves, and we grabbed them. In keeping with the metaphor, Spirit is long gone, and only her twin sister Opportunity remains. But now our motivation is Curiosity. And Curiosity itself seems to have a personality.

Curiosity landed at Bradbury Landing, named after the science fiction writer, on August 5, 2012. Its mission is to travel 10 kilometers, an extraordinary distance for a fragile rover on rough terrain with only thin aluminum tracks to support it. The destination is Mount Sharp, a peak so tall and rough that Curiosity’s engineers couldn’t land her there. But before she made her way westward to the mountain, she checked out some interesting geology off to the east. On October 7, 2012, she used her robotic arm to collect and analyze her first sample of Martian soil. She found what scientists have expected all along: trace evidence of water. Yes indeed, life may have once existed on Mars.

Mars, according to Curiosity, isn’t the most pleasant place for humans. Her radiation counter has calculated that astronauts flying from Earth to Mars and back, with a 500-day stay there, would get zapped with enough radiation to increase their chances of developing fatal cancer by about 5%. Fortunately, radiation doesn’t bother Curiosity. She presses onward, making herself known as the first Mars rover to drill into a Mars rock. This time, she finds clay minerals, further evidence that Mars was once a more hospitable world with water flowing on its surface. (Opportunity has found similar evidence, from her side of Mars.)

It takes until May 30, 2013 to confirm that Curiosity has been exploring an ancient streambed. She’s found pebbles, and has concluded that the water there was once waist-deep and flowing at walking speed. That would be bad for Curiosity, but it’s good news for us humans who love the water. Past the streambed, she treks onward toward Mount Sharp, stopping at an outcrop called Darwin to study more pebbly rock. Evidence suggests that Gale Crater, where she first landed, has had a complex water history of rivers appearing, drying up, and more taking their place.

Mars is a pretty cool place, but it’s not without its hardships. On November 8, 2013, her computer unexpectedly resets itself. Her engineers have encountered numerous computer problems, all part of having your IT department on another planet. But Curiosity is undaunted. Computer challenges or no, she continues to blast rock away and analyze the light it gives off. She finds more and more evidence of water by the day. She even becomes the first rover to date rock from another planet.

Eventually, however, faulty technology takes its toll. Curiosity continues along her path to Mount Sharp. Along the way, she encounters all manner of rough terrain, which punches holes in her tracks, which were designed to be light for easy launch. She’s forced to detour through a softer route. That means extra sand hazards. She’s traversing an unforgiving desert.

To date, Curiosity has found organic compounds and nitric acid, demanding evidence that there is life of some sort on Mars.

6 thoughts on “Guest Post – Curiosity: The Little Rover that Could

  1. To quote the movie Contact, “‘ll tell you one thing about the universe, though. The universe is a pretty big place. It’s bigger than anything anyone has ever dreamed of before. So if it’s just us… seems like an awful waste of space. Right? “

    Liked by 1 person

    • I went from this post to Perse’s site with enthusiasm and curiosity. The former stems from my long, interesting and ancient experience in the aerospace biz. The Biz covers a lot of territory, including some unsavory weapons and national security, but also some very tasty areas, the best of which, in my book, is and was space exploration in all its many facets.🚀
      I worked on the Space Shuttle program, including buying parts to build the replacement for the first one that blew up, which required buying parts that had already been replaced and superseded by upgraded and updated technologies. I had way more fun, though, when I worked on a bunch of different kinds of satellite programs at TRW which is now part of Northrop-Grumann. When I was there, employee interpretations of the acronym included Truly Really Wonderful and Tonka Rocket Works. The first satellite program I worked on was TDRS. It was a constellation of communications satellites. One of them did not achieve correct orbit upon launch, so it had to use its small maneuvering motors to get itself where it needed to be, so I called it the Little Satellite That Could. Tragically, one of them was aboard Challenger when it blew up. We didn’t have to buy old replacement parts for that one, though, since a back-up satellite had already been started.
      I was curious about Perse’s background and involvement in space exploration and, from my cursory review, gleaned that, though she may not be in the Biz, she certainly has a lot of hands-on experience, at least with telescopes. Even though I’ve been out of the Biz for many years, i still maintain a pretty deep interest for where we are still going out there. So much so, in fact, that I lifted some interesting facts about another old NASA satellite to include in a memoir piece last summer. 🌏

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