Curious about Curiosity?
Mankind has always been fascinated by our mysterious neighbour, the Red Planet. With the largest volcano and the deepest canyon in the entire solar system, it is at once both strikingly familiar and frighteningly different to our own rocky home. It is also the only planet nearby where humans could one day settle. Throughout history the mysteries and possibilities of Mars have captured human imagination, and scientists today still can’t help but wonder – is there life on Mars?
NASA has developed a particularly simple exploration strategy to attempt to answer this question, and to investigate whether life could have ever existed on the now desolate rock. It’s summed up, quite simply, as ‘Follow the Water!’
So how is Curiosity different to NASA’s previous Martian rovers? Well, for starters, it’s 10 times as massive as any other rover sent to Mars, and has already, in its third month of service, returned more data back to base than all of the agency’s previous rovers combined. Unlike other rovers with feeble solar cells, Curiosity is powered by plutonium, and as such can easily keep on roving (as long as there’s funding…!) for at least another 14 years! It’s for this reason that ground control, at Caltech in California, is taking things slow for the minute, not yet feeling the need to ramp up the speed to Curiosity’s whopping top velocity of 0.04ms-1.
Curiosity first made its spectacularly-executed landing onto Mars on the 6th August, landing in a meteor-impact crater on the Martian surface known as the Gale Crater, about 150km wide. It then immediately set to work testing out its instruments, zapping rocks, snapping photos and zooming around to check its lasers, cameras and wheels. For now it’s trundling across the Martian landscape towards a site scientists have dubbed Glenelg, a spot 400m from the landing site where three different types of rock terrain are all suspected to intersect, making it a thrilling spot for Curiosity to explore. Curiosity’s eventual destination is 6km away at the base of Mount Sharp, the 5km high mountain in the centre of the Gale crater. Constructed out of layers of different sediments, some of which may have been deposited billions of years ago when there was still an abundance of water on the Martian surface, it is the ultimate place to explore Martian history.
Discoveries so far…
Curiosity has already made some exciting discoveries though in its first baby steps across the Red Planet. From a chance encounter with an ancient riverbed, to a surprise discovery that a rock sample had a composition never before seen on Mars, it seems the mission couldn’t be going better for this early stage. And if ground control don’t get distracted broadcasting any more will.i.am songs from the rover for ‘educational exercises’, it is on course to deliver some of the most exciting scientific discoveries for a generation.
Highlights so far
|6 AUG Touchdown!Curiosity lands perfectly in the Gale Crater on Mars||20 AUG Zap!Curiosity fires its laser at a small rock named Coronation||22 AUG Drive!Curiosity rolls 4.5m forwards, rotates on the spot and reverses back again to check that its wheels work||10 SEP Snap!Curiosity takes a self-portrait of its ChemCam and MastCam cameras|
|20 SEP Discovery!Curiosity zaps a rock just to test the instruments, only to discover it has a composition never before seen on Mars||27 SEP Spot!Curiosity spots bedrock made up of gravel and sand – the first ground-based observations of Mars’ suspected ancient streams||19 OCT Eat!Curiosity scoops up and ‘ingests’ a pinch of dust into its CheMin instrument for analysis, and finds that it’s similar to Hawaiian soil|
SpaceX: Putting Sexy into Space
On 25 May 2012, space history was made. A spacecraft called Dragon, built by private space company SpaceX, became the first commercial vehicle to dock with the International Space Station. 7 years, 650 million pounds from NASA, and it didn’t crash. Thank goodness.
But why is this important? Well, for one thing, it means NASA no longer has to rely on other countries to get their cargo across. NASA decommissioned its shuttle programme back in 2011 on orders from the US government, due to the high cost of maintaining the fleet. But this left the space agency with no means of getting cargo to their astronauts, and, in fact, no means of putting astronauts into orbit at all. For the time being American astronauts have been ‘hitching rides’ on the Russian Soyuz craft, currently the only spacecrafts still suitable for human passengers. But NASA has been keen to invest in private US companies to pick up where the shuttles left off.
The successful flight by SpaceX represents the first step in that direction. Although the first test flight was only carrying non-essential cargo, it demonstrated Dragon’s capabilities, and NASA have commissioned the spacecraft for at least 12 more cargo flights to the ISS, starting this month. What’s more, SpaceX say that very achievable modifications could be made to make Dragon ready for human passengers. The planned ‘crew configuration’ for the spacecraft, designed by the company, includes a manual override capability, an escape system, and instruments controlling pressure, humidity, and air circulation, all for the benefit of human passengers. The company have also designed the method of re-entry, a water landing with the aid of parachutes, to minimise G-forces and help with precision, to ensure the safety of returning astronauts. SpaceX are keen to suggest that their successful unmanned flight in May demonstrates Dragon’s capabilities, and hope to be hosting regular passenger flights by 2017.
But in this field, SpaceX faces tough competition. Rival companies Boeing and Sierra Nevada have also been awarded NASA funding to provide shuttles suitable for human passengers, and in particular Sierra Nevada’s ‘Dream Chaser’ capsule is already in development. And so a new, commercial stage of the space race begins. Virgin Galactic are already asking for deposits for £130,000 tickets for ‘space tourists’ to fly into low Earth orbit on SpaceShipTwo.
All images are courtesy of NASA.