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.
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.