The Science of Sustainability

Searching for Life on Mars

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pdf Searching for Life on Mars Educator Guide ( pdf ) A resource for using QUEST video in the classroom.

After multiple unmanned missions to Mars, we still don't know if life has ever existed there. NASA scientists are hoping a new high-tech rover will help them solve the mystery. The Mars Science Laboratory was launched on November 26, 2011 and will search for any evidence that the Red Planet was once capable of supporting life.

It’s been more than eight years since NASA has sent a rover to explore Mars. And although both of the rovers from 2003’s Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) Mission, called Spirit and Opportunity, transmitted valuable data long after they were expected to expire, the newest rover, Curiosity, will be able to collect data far beyond the scope of any past mission.

Curiosity is a car-sized rover which will search areas of Mars for past or present conditions favorable for life, and conditions capable of preserving a record of life.

Curiosity consists of 10 instrument-based science experiments including a geology lab, a rock-vaporizing laser, a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer and several special cameras. Curiosity will use the laser to look inside rocks and release their gasses so its spectrometer can analyze and send the data back to Earth.

After launch, the spacecraft will travel approximately 354 million miles, landing on Mars in early August 2012.

Once Curiosity starts working on Mars, an international team of scientists and engineers will make daily decisions about the rover’s activities for the following day. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., builder of the MSL, has engineered Curiosity to roll over obstacles up to 25 inches high and to travel up to about 660 feet per day on Martian terrain. Curiosity’s primary mission will last one Mars year (98 weeks).

NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California contributed to the design and engineering of several elements of the new rover. Ames scientist David Blake is the principal investigator for one of the main instruments called CheMin, an X-ray diffraction and fluorescence instrument designed to identify and quantify the minerals in rocks and soils, and to measure bulk composition. CheMin data will be useful in the search for potential mineral biosignatures, energy sources for life or indicators of past habitable environments.

Extensive video coverage of the liftoff of the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft aboard an Atlas V rocket are available on NASA's website.

Tech specs and facts

Mission name: Mars Science Laboratory
Rover name: Curiosity rover
Size: 10 feet long (not including the arm), 9 feet wide and 7 feet tall
Weight: 900 kilograms (2,000 pounds)
Launch: Between Nov. 25–Dec. 18, 2011, from Cape Canaveral, Florida
Arrival: August 2012 at Mars Gale crater
Total distance of travel, Earth to Mars: About 354 million miles
Length of mission on Mars: One Mars year or about 23 Earth months
Cost: $2.5 billion

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Category: Astronomy, Biology, Television

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Rachel Silverman

About the Author ()

Rachel Silverman has traveled the globe producing and reporting news and public affairs programs for some of the world's leading television networks. She took two languages in high school in order to dodge the science requirement, and has been working diligently to make up for that shortcoming. Rachel is a five-time national Olympic Weightlifting Champion, and a member of the U.S. Weightlifting Hall of Fame. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and their daughter.