The Science of Sustainability

Mars Trek: The Next Generation

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NASA's Mars Science Laboratory–artist conceptThey just keep getting bigger and better—and curiouser. The next generation Mars rover—The Mars Science Laboratory, "Curiosity"—is well off the drawing board and into its gestation phase…no longer just a gleam in the eye of robotics engineers and Marsologists.

In 1997 there was the grandmother of all Mars rovers, Sojourner—a high-tech breadbox on wheels that crawled about the immediate area of its landing site in Ares Vallis, at the downstream end of an outflow structure. Sojourner (the rover portion of the overall Pathfinder lander) took 3-D images, performed chemical analyses on rocks, and successfully tested the "bounce around the landscape in an airbag" concept of landing on another planet.

Next up were Sojourner's successors—dare I say Prodigal Sons?—Spirit and Opportunity. A step up in stature, these self-sufficient science labs on wheels are about the size of small dinner tables with camera masts stretching 5 feet into the sky. Equipped with the almost prerequisite stereoscopic cameras, rock grinders, microscopic cameras, and a plethora of other instruments, these Mars Exploration Rovers far outlasted their original mission timelines—by years. Landing in 2004, Spirit only recently ceased transmission (temporarily or permanently is yet to be seen), and Opportunity is still roving, on its way to Endeavor Crater to see what it may see.

And now? It's bigger! It's better! It's the new Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity! The next rover mission is currently being assembled and tested, in preparation for a launch in the Fall of 2011 and arrival at Mars early in 2012. Weighing in at 1,875 pounds (Earth-weight) and with a camera-mast height of nearly 7 feet, Curiosity will carry the most extensive and advanced set of instrumentation and analysis capability of any lander yet sent to Mars.

It's mission: to determine if the environment on Mars is, or ever was, capable of supporting microbial life.

Past missions have been focused incrementally on making new discoveries about the once mysterious, and currently astonishing (and still mysterious), Mars. The first robots to venture forth to the Red Planet—Mariner 4 and Mariner 9, particularly—gave us our first close-up look at Mars' cratered desert surface, its thin atmosphere, and the global dust storms that it is famous for. Missions to follow include the twin Viking landers in the late 1970's that gave us our first views from the surface of another planet, and also performed chemical experiments to search for the telltale signs of life—though results on that score are inconclusive.

Continuing exploration missions—Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, and now the powerful Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter—have filled in many details of Mars' exquisite geography, water/ice processes, meteorology, and chemical composition.

The principal mission of the twins Spirit and Opportunity was to find evidence of past—or present—liquid water on Mars…the conclusion of which is that we're nearly certain that there was.

And it is the knowledge of past Martian seas, and possibly present submartian liquid water, that seems to make some almost taste the presence of microbial Martians, be they live or fossilized. Hence, the mission of the Mars Science Laboratory takes us on the next step of our journey to answer that age old question: is there life beyond Earth? Do tell….

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Category: Astronomy, Partners

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Ben Burress

About the Author ()

Benjamin Burress has been a staff astronomer at Chabot Space & Science Center since July 1999. He graduated from Sonoma State University in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in physics (and minor in astronomy), after which he signed on for a two-year stint in the Peace Corps, where he taught physics and mathematics in the African nation of Cameroon. From 1989-96 he served on the crew of NASA’s Kuiper Airborne Observatory at Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA. From 1996-99, he was Head Observer at the Naval Prototype Optical Interferometer program at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ. Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.
  • Jim Stryder

    While I like the mission concept, and its purpose, I'm not confident in this system's landing deployment sequences compared to that of Pathfinder '96, or the current Mars Exploration Rover missions.

    Tethered, hanging under a base with landing descent engines, let's see what happens!

  • http://www.chabotspace.org Ben Burress

    I think they needed a different landing mode because Curiosity is so much bigger than the others. In fact, the MER rovers were designed to fit into the same space as Sojourner–one of the reasons they were designed to unfold to the degree they did.

  • Antonio Vargas

    Scientists have discovered bacteria in a hole drilled more than 4000 feet deep in volcanic rock in Hawaii, in an environment that could be very similar to the conditions on Mars. We can send it to Mars on next mission and study if this extreme bacteria can survive.

  • Ben Burress

    While sending an Earth "extremophile" (life form that exists in extreme conditions) to Mars to see if it could survive might be a good laboratory experiment, doing so would mean contaminating Mars with Earth germs, which is something that NASA is striving to avoid. All of the spacecraft we send to the Martian surface are sterilized before leaving Earth, so that we don't contaminate Mars with organisms. The reason for this is twofold: first, if there are any life forms on Mars already (Martians–even Martian microbes), we don't want to risk destroying them with Earth germs. And, even if there is no life on Mars, putting Earthling microbes there (especially those that might actually be able to survive there) would alter Mars. We may one day determine that there is no life on Mars, and might consider altering that world to our needs, but at present we are being as cautious as we can. It would be a shame to end up destroying the first extraterrestrial life that we might find out there.

    However, we can recreate the environment of Mars here on Earth, in a controlled laboratory experiment, to see if Earthly extremophiles can exist in that environment. This could prove to us that life CAN exist on Mars….