Today, with over 5,000 employees, NASA's JPL is responsible for the construction and operation of robotic planetary spacecraft. In addition, JPL also conducts Earth-orbit and astronomy missions, including the Mars Rover Curiosity.
Curiosity was launched into space by NASA on November 26, 2011 and began its journey to Mars where it landed the following year on August 6, 2012. The rover's main task is to investigate Mars for its habitability. Curiosity will be studying Mars' climate and geology, while simultaneously sending back photos, videos, and other valuable data that will be heavily analyzed for a potential future manned mission to Mars.
Curiosity's objectives via NASA:
- Determine the nature and inventory of organic carbon compounds
- Inventory the chemical building blocks of life (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorous, and sulfur)
- Identify features that may represent the effects of biological processes
Geological and geochemical objectives:
- Investigate the chemical, isotopic, and mineralogical composition of the martian surface and near-surface geological materials
- Interpret the processes that have formed and modified rocks and soils
Planetary process objectives:
- Assess long-timescale (i.e., 4-billion-year) atmospheric evolution processes
- Determine present state, distribution, and cycling of water and carbon dioxide
Surface radiation objective:
- Characterize the broad spectrum of surface radition, including galactic cosmic radiation, solar proton events, and secondary neutrons
The variety and complexity of the Mars Science Laboratory's mission objectives meant that Curiosity required a much higher payload than previous rovers in order to carry additional scientific equipment. This complicated the landing sequence, requiring the use of a "sky crane"--essentially is a rocket-powered platform that uses thrusters to level off the rover, then lower it to the Mars on four cables.
After a few days spent on the ground testing Curiosity's functions, the rover got to work.
Curiosity spends its time moving slowly across the Martian terrain, snapping up pictures and taking samples. If something catches Curiosity's cycloptic eye, Curiosity can use an infrared laser to vaporize and examine a sample. From there, Curiosity can pick up the object and look at it closer using its microscope and X-ray functionality. And for an even closer look, Curiosity can drill into the sample, grab the resulting powder, and place it into the onboard Sample Analysis for Mars instrument (SAM) or CheMin lab for further analysis.
SAM analyzes gases from both atmospheric and solid samples. By studying the different ratios of carbon dioxide and methane in the Mars atmosphere, researchers hope to determine the biological origin of the gases in air. The CheMin lab uses X-ray to identify the minerals present in rocks and soil while searching for water in the formation of the minerals. It uses this data in seeking energy sources for life or any indication of previous life.
These and other advanced instruments onboard Curiosity might just give us better insight into the age-old question: "Are we alone?"