A Seriously Wild Rover



We’re going back to Mars.

Stephen Keegan writes:

Assuming that the audacious seven minutes of terror landing goes according to plan in a week’s time, (an outcome that is far from certain, given a near 50% failure rate for missions of this kind), the car-sized Curiosity Rover will emerge into the Martian sunlight on August 6.

The landing site is Gale Crater, an area of about the same size as Munster within which, it is believed, water may once have pooled. Curiosity’s main goal is to travel through this crater (and beyond) and to carefully gather and analyse samples of Martian soil and rocks in search of the carbon-based building blocks essential to life as we know it – organic molecules. These molecules (together with flowing water) are, according to our understanding, essential for life.

The primary procedure involves Curiosity scooping, dusting, drilling, collect, sorting, sieve and delivering soil and rock samples to a suite of on-board analytical instruments.

These include high resolution cameras, x-ray and laser spectrometers and radiation and hydrogen detectors. The on-board nuclear powered module will allow this activity to continue for at least 14 (Earth) years.

So, besides some new fascinating high resolution photographs of Gale Crater, what can we expect from this endeavour?

It is hoped that the search will reveal complex organic molecules (those comprised of 10 or more carbon atoms). These might resemble known building blocks of life such as the amino acids that constitute proteins.

A key consideration here is the depth of the sample obtained. The bombardment of the Martian surface makes this kind of molecule more likely to exist beneath the surface, where it might be shielded from elevated levels of radiation.

Unfortunately, the drilling capability of Curiosity is a mere 5cm. In spite of this, it is hoped that the expected traces will be found. Alexander Pavlov of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center is the lead author of a recent report which stated that the chances of a find of this nature are better than had previously been thought.

A positive finding would, of course, raise more questions that it answered. What kind of life might be found? Would it be anologous to life on Earth? If it is extinct, what happened? Or might any life detected be something altogether unexpected?

Findings might provide insights about the origin of life on Earth. Might evidence for abiogenesis or panspermia emerge? Answering these questions will require future robotic missions. These will be more sophisticated in design- a sample return mission involving the retrieval and return to Earth of Martian samples would permit a more in-depth analysis. Of course, a future human mission to Mars will allow extensive investigation such as (deeper) core drilling.

These efforts will be undertaken against the backdrop of the dynamic world of space exploration, where the balance of power is shifting and motivations are being redefined. States like China and India, as well as commercial organizations like SpaceX are increasingly proactive.

NASA, too, has been realigning in recent times. (One consquence of any positive findings could be the re-engagement of NASA in ExoMars, a Martian mission scheduled for 2016-2018). Whatever the outcome, we can hope that this and future missions are conducted in the spirit of that most human of qualities, curiosity.

Stephen is IT consultant and the “author of a series of technical academic papers and journal articles over the past decade”. He has a PhD in Computer Science from UCD)


Stephen’s blog 20/20 Visions

Meanwhile: William Shatner and Wil Wheaton Narrate NASA’s Two New Mars Rover Videos! (i09)