News from Mars

On 6 August, the Curiosity rover (a.k.a Mars Science Laboratory), the latest of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, successfully completed the 7 minutes of terror and landed safely on the surface Mars. Curiosity  landed in the Gale Crater, a meteorite crater formed about 3.6 billion years ago which shows a number of signs indicating that water was present over its history – and water is key to life as we know it. The main science goal of the Curiosity mission is to determine  whether the landing site ever had (or still has) an environment capable of supporting microbial life, i.e. whether Mars was ever habitable.

Artists concept of Curiosity at work on Mars. (Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech)

Curiosity will conduct a range of experiments to meet its 9 mission objectives, which include biological, geological and geochemical, planetary process, and surface radiation objectives.  The rover is big – about the size of a small car, 2.2 m high and weighing 900 kg. (Curiosity is about 2 times the size of the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit & Opportunity and 5 times heavier.) Curiosity has a large suite of instruments, including cameras, spectrometers, radiation detectors, environmental and atmospheric senors.

Curiosity has successfully conducted it first test drive on 22 August 2012 and has been confirmed to be in a safe state to move beyond the landing site.

Curiosity’s first test drive on 22 August 2012. The rover moved forward 4.5 m, rotated 120 degrees and then revered 2.5 m. (Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech)

Just 22 days after landing, on 28 August 2012 Curiosity began its eastward trek to its first science destination about 400 m away, thus commencing the surface operations phase, which will involve Curiosity conducting scientific experiment in Gale crater. The primary mission of the Mars Science Laboratory is one Martian year (which is 687 Earth days). During this time it will travel between 5 and 20 km from the landing site and collect, grind and analyse about 70 rock and soil samples.  Curiosity will slowly make its way to Mount Sharp, the base of which is about 10 km away.

View to the S-SW of Curiosity’s landing site, taken with the 100-millimeter Mast Camera on 23 August 2012. The layered base of Mount Sharp can be seen about 10 km in the distance, with the mountains peak some 16 km away. (Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech)

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