“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” was radioed by Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the surface of the moon on 20 July 1969. Almost three decades later NASA landed the first rover on Mars, The Pathfinder as a proof of concept for the delivery system of instruments to different planets. To find out about the presence of life on Mars. NASA landed the Curiosity rover with a revolutionary new delivery system which we’ll discuss.
The process of landing a rover on another planet starts with the selection of the landing zone.
A landing zone should have evidence of being habitable either in the past or in the present. The location should be roam-able, especially when a robot, 280.61 million km away from Earth, with no repair stations, has to move around, tasked with finding answers on past or present life. Lastly, to study the geology of the planet, the landing site should also have a surface, exposing all the layers of rocks the planet is housing. After 5 years and scientists finally selected Gale Crater as the landing zone.
Now comes the most important part of making the rover and setting it up for launch.
The conditions on Mars are not forgiving. Scientists at the Jet Propulsion Lab of NASA in Pasadena, California knew that the margin of error in this multi-billion-dollar project was slim. All the electrical and mechanical components of the rover including the instrument used for conducting experiments were tested under harsh conditions. It was a sturdy 7 feet tall, 9.7 feet long by 9.1 feet wide, 900 kilogram, small SUV-sized rover. Due to its sheer size and weight, the rover had to be transported in parts. US air force transport planes took 2 trips to deliver the whole rover to its launch site in Cape Canaveral. At the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, the rover again underwent testing, under harsh conditions to make sure the mission was full proof.
The Journey to Mars began on November 26th, 2011.
Curiosity along with a revolutionary delivery system, the sky crane was launched from the Kennedy Space center on top of an Atlas V rocket for almost a 7-monthlong journey to Mars. On 5th August, began the entry, descent, and landing phase. This stage of the mission was completely autonomous, the scientists had no control over the spacecraft. It was a 7-minutes process, famously known as the “7 minutes of terror“.
First, the attitude correction jet was fired to fix the landing zone and reduce the speed to 1.7 times the speed of sound. Then the supersonic parachute was deployed to reduce the speed further. Later, the heat shield detached and the rover along with the sky crane was released from the aero-shell. The sky crane along with 8 thrusters took the rover to 25 feet above the surface and slowly lowered it down with tethers attached. After the rover had a soft touchdown, the sky crane flew away and crashed far from the landing zone making sure of its safety. On August 29th, 2012, curiosity began a 2-month-long drive and covered a distance of 400 meters.
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Why was the rover built so sophisticated?
The rover was built with the mission to identify if life existed on Mars, study the climate and topography of the planet, and gather data that can be studied to prepare for human exploration of the planet. To accomplish all these, the rover was packed with scientific instruments, cameras, and a drill! It is the first rover to carry a drill to Mars and is used to dig into rocks. Which is then collected and studied in the chemistry lab of the rover. The SUV-sized rover consumes a lot of power and scientists had planned in advance that the rover would be used for multiple missions after the primary goal was achieved. It was decided that nuclear power would be its energy source.
The decay of Plutonium 238, a nuclear fuel, produces heat. This heat is converted to electricity, to power the rover. An added advantage of the nuclear power source was to keep the rover heated even during extreme winters. The rover moves at a maximum speed of 3.8cm/s, shoots lasers and drills holes on the surface collect samples and cooks them in an oven, and studies the vapors and residue to find the elements present on the surface. The instruments enabling them are a powerful laser, a fully equipped chemistry laboratory, and a few spectroscopes.
The curiosity mission was a success and here are some groundbreaking discoveries it made.
On June 24, 2014, Curiosity completed its primary mission objectives. During this period, the spectrometers and chemistry labs onboard detected the presence of sulfur and chlorine. After analysis of a rock named John Klein, it was suggested that the Gale crater might have housed microbial life after finding traces of water molecules, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide.
December 16, 2014, scientists from the curiosity program announced that Curiosity had identified organic molecules on Mars, and methane was also detected. Co relating the previous data to the new one, scientists came to the conclusion that the newly-found organic molecules might have come from meteorites that had landed on this planet. Later, the rover also led to the discovery of nitrogen in the form of nitric oxide which is also a marker of life in the present or past. The greatest discovery that scientists made was that Mars had huge lakes of water on its surface in the past which led to the layered deposition of sediments in the Gale crater.
The rover during its primary and extended mission had come across many difficulties like system failure, mechanical obstruction of the drill and robot arm, and recently the damage to the wheels. The scientists on earth came up with a solution to all these problems and kept the rover going even after 10 years.
The rover has sent over 900,000 images of the red planet, giving us a good view of Mars. Currently, the rover is on a “less move and more experiment” stage which enables it to gather more scientific data. Curiosity has helped study life beyond Earth. It has helped scientists understand what conditions will make a planet suitable for life. The Curiosity mission was not an overnight success. years of research and rovers landed in the past had led to this. More missions like Curiosity are in the pipeline, waiting to make new discoveries in the universe.