Next on Mars: Scientific road trip

2012-08-07 13:05

Washington - Imagine taking 400 scientists on an alien road trip where each one wants to examine every interesting rock along the way. Welcome to the next two years of Nasa's landmark robotic mission on Mars.

Scientists on Earth are eager to explore the Gale Crater, where water is believed to have pooled many years ago and where the US space agency's $2.5bn Curiosity rover touched down early on Monday.

Next up, Curiosity will haul the Mars Science Laboratory as far as halfway up Mount Sharp, a towering 5km Martian mountain with sediment layers that may be up to a billion-years-old.

But it may be a full year before the remote-controlled rover gets to the base of the peak, which is believed to be within 20km of the rover's landing site.

‘Not rushing out there’

"We are going to make sure that we are firing on all cylinders before we blaze out across the plains there," John Grotzinger, project scientist on the Mars Science Laboratory, told reporters shortly after the rover landed.

"Possibly within a year or so we could be at the base of Mount Sharp, because the place we landed on looks pretty darn interesting and we just don't want to rush out of there without having studied it real well," he said.

"The science team is going to look at the geology of the landing ellipse as a whole and then try to find a route, and if it is a more circuitous route, if the science justifies it, we will happily take that route."

First, a series of checks to the car-sized vehicle must take place, which could take weeks.

Then comes the unavoidable bickering and questions of, "Are we there yet?" that another Nasa scientist likened to taking a cross-country family trip with all of his co-workers.

"My version of the surface mission is that it is like going on a family vacation and driving from here to Chicago," said Richard Cook, flight systems manager on the project at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

"Except that your family has got 400 scientists who want to stop and look at every fossilized [thing] they can find."

Water detector

Part of the check-out process will be testing the various instruments on board the rover, which carries everything from a rock-vaporising laser and telescope combination to a chemistry kit for analysing powdered soil and rock. Preliminary checks have come out well so far, Nasa said on Monday.

The rover also totes tools to check for carbon-based compounds that are the building blocks of life and a water detector that can pick up water underground at a distance of 50cm.

One instrument, the Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD), has already been collecting data about the radiation the spacecraft sustained, including the effects of five big solar flares, since its November 2011 launch.

The monitor has tracked high energy atomic and subatomic particles from the sun that could pose a danger to astronauts if a human mission to Mars ever takes place, with US President Barack Obama vowing to get humans there by 2030.

‘No hurry’

Don Hassler, principal investigator for Curiosity's RAD, told reporters last week scientists were still analyzing the data but said the radiation recorded would make a "significant" contribution to an astronaut's career dose limit.

Nasa said "radiation from galactic cosmic rays, originating from supernova explosions and other extremely distant events, accounted for more of the total radiation experienced on the trip than the amount from solar particle events".

The Curiosity rover's planned two-year lifespan is already much longer than the last Nasa rovers to get to the red planet in 2004.

Spirit and Opportunity were solar-powered vehicles meant to last three months. Spirit carried on a bountiful career that lasted more than six years and Opportunity is still trucking along.

"The nominal mission for this is two years, but... if it lasts twice that I don't think anyone would be shocked," said Pete Theisinger, director of the Engineering and Science Directorate at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

"We are in no hurry, okay? And we're not going to... screw it up."

  • JNaMolefe - 2012-08-07 13:32

    Well done! With the following article, "The monitor has tracked high energy atomic and subatomic particles from the sun that could pose a danger to astronauts if a human mission to Mars ever takes place, with US President Barack Obama vowing to get humans there by 2030." It makes sense... Obama, do you mind if i can join them to go through Mars in 2030?

      Matthew - 2012-08-07 14:28

      Take me with!

  • rudie.stoltz - 2012-08-07 13:35

    2.5 Billion. What a waste of money.

      JManAtheoi - 2012-08-07 13:37

      To you maybe. To all people wanting to know more about whats out there etc, its awesome.

      ben.louw.5 - 2012-08-07 14:23

      Not at all. Spending $1.63 trillion on war is a waste of money....

      scott.kirby.752 - 2012-08-07 18:58

      Rudie, I honestly cannot understand people like you, how can you not think this is the most awesome thing man has ever achieved!!! We put a nuclear powered car with LAZERS on it onto another PLANET barely 100 years after we invented powered flight, that's just so cool for me??

      merven.halo - 2012-08-08 08:13

      '2.5 Billion. What a waste of money.' It is because of idiots like you that humanity isn't more advanced in science. You are probably religious also.

  • kritzinger - 2012-08-07 14:54

    Obama is such a troll... making promises he doesn't have to keep in his two terms :). Awesome news.

  • walter.lebza - 2012-08-07 21:27

    If you can find your way on mars from a telescope on earth, obviously you can see that there is nothing there. People must never be fooled into thinking one day they might live on mars. Because its colder than your freezer, no oxygen, no rain, no plants can survive the conditions on mars and so people unless God permits. I think I agree more with those who say it's a big waste of 2 billion dollars.

      merven.halo - 2012-08-08 08:15

      Lol lebza, you think you are more clever than NASA scientists? Don't quit your daytime job.

      arno.botha.71 - 2012-08-08 13:12

      Walter, i think you're understating how inhospitable mars really is. That being said, i still hold on to the belief that human ingenuity and resolve shouldn't be underestimated. If you look at the technological advancements we've made in leaps and bounds over the last century then we'd be stupid to assume this can't be done. I think terraforming mars is more a question of economic limitations than one of technological limitations.

  • arno.botha.71 - 2012-08-08 13:19

    I would imagine landing the rover on the side of "Mount Sharp" and then driving it down to the base would be a more efficient use of energy, but then again i'm not a NASA scientist.

  • Robert - 2012-08-08 15:53

    Just a note for those people who advocate that that this is a waste of money. Besides war which has been central to quick technological advancement throughout the ages to gain leverage over your opponent before he gets one over you, (the A Bomb is a prime example), the exploration of space results in technologies being updated or discovered on a regular basis that ultimately land up for peaceful purposes on the doorstep of the mass of humanity. Examples are too numerous to mention but quickly: communications such as GPS, internet, radio, television; engineering and design such as led’s planes, cars, boats, tyres food, etc. The list is endless. So the billions spent on research and development for these projects is money well spent by any investor standard. Of course national pride also features but I would guess the financial considerations would override this as we have witnessed when the lunar projects (now resurrected) were shelved due to financial constraints years ago.

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