What Will Curiosity Tell Us About the Martian Planet?
The Curiosity landed on Mars this week. It will assess whether Mars has or ever had a habitat that was able to support microbial life. The Curiosity will investigate a site that shows clear evidence for ancient aqueous processes based on satellite data. Assessment of present habitability requires an evaluation of the characteristics of the environment and a comparison of those characteristics with what is known about the capacity for life on Earth. Determination of past habitability will be assessed through chemical, physical, and geological observations.
The mission is not a life detection mission and will not detect microbial metabolisms or look for fossils. However, the Curiosity can detect complex organic molecules in rocks and soils. If present, these might be of biological origin. However, the presence could also reflect the presence of carbonaceous meteorites. Therefore, the scientists must look for complex patterns of data that would indicate the presence of current or former life on the Red planet. The Curiosity can also probe for other biosignatures, such as inorganic and organic carbon in rocks and soils. The challenge in establishment of a biosignature is to find a pattern, either chemical or textural, that cannot easily be explained by physical processes.
The Curiosity will assess the atmosphere for water and dust, solar, UV, and high-energy radiation, and chemicals and isotopies. For example, the Curiosity will evaluate the concentration of potentially biogenic gases such as methane, which have recently been detected in the modern atmosphere.
The mission will also look for soil and rocks that contain carbon, including methane, which are associated with life, and explore ways in which they are generated or destroyed on Mars. Because these compounds are essential to life as we know it, their relative abundance will help evaluate whether Mars could have or does support life.
The Curiosity has a robotic arm and turret-mounted devices, which include a drill, brush, soil scoop, and mechanical and electrical interfaces. The scoop can collect soil samples from depths up to 3.5 cm and it can also collect unconsolidated samples from rover wheel-dug trenches which might be as deep as 20 cm.
A complex procedure will be used to provide accurate assessments of the amount of organic compounds present on Mars. Although steps were taken to ensure that the soil and rock samples do not contain terrestrial contaminants, it is likely that a slight amount of terrestrial contamination remains. Organic contamination will be assessed at five different times during the mission using five bricks of Organic Check Material (OCM). Each brick is doped with a low concentration of 3-fluorophenanthrene and 1-fluoronapthalene, which are synthetic organic compounds not found in nature on Earth and not expected on Mars. OCM samples will be used to check the extent to which terrestrial organic contamination has occurred in the soil and rock samples.
Curiosity has a top speed of about 450 feet per hour.
The mission is planned to last about two years.
NASA two spacecraft orbiting the Red Planet, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey
What happened to Curiosity’s predecessor Opportunity? It’s still going!
Curiosity got its name from student Clara Ma who signed her name on the space ship before it took off.
Mars has about the same amount of dry land as the Earth.
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