Any NASA enthusiast has been closely following news from the Curiosity Mars Rover over the last handful of years, and it’s gotten quite a few headlines just in the last couple of weeks. Curiosity has provided us with invaluable insight into the unique traits and characteristics of Mars, offering observational capabilities never before seen in space exploration. So, what exactly is Curiosity, and what has it enabled in terms of understanding Mars on a deeper level?
NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover
Curiosity is NASA’s Mars rover that is currently observing Mars using some of the most impressive technology ever developed for space exploration. It was launched from Cape Canaveral in November of 2011, initially for a two-year mission, which has since been extended as the rover continues to collect data on Mars to this day.
Curiosity is the size of a car, and it boasts a number of observational tools as well as the ability to collect samples. Its primary purpose is to study the habitability of the planet, in hopes that one day Mars could be inhabited by humans. Mainly, it’s studying the climate, atmosphere and geological makeup of the planet, while looking for microbial life, water, and weather patterns in order to compare it to those of our own planet for comparison.
The rover is equipped with communication devices that allow it to efficiently send information back to Earth for study, and its impressive efficiency has secured the longevity of its mission. Attached to Curiosity is a series of cameras which each use highly advanced technology to record images of specific atmospheric and environmental factors.
And, Curiosity has accumulated something of a celebrity status, having taken a selfie just a week ago. Most recently, it allowed us to name a Martian hill, giving it the name “Rafael Navarro Mountain” in honor of a recently deceased NASA scientist.
What Curiosity has Accomplished in Terms of Mars Exploration
In the near-ten years that Curiosity has been collecting data for NASA scientists, it’s provided us with lots of insight into Mars that was never before known, or at least observable to humans.
#1: Evidence of Water
Just shortly after landing, Curiosity found evidence of water while observing the surface of Mars. It discovered over 1,000 feet of a previous body of water, demonstrated by the smoothing of rocks into pebbles over a long stretch of land, as the water had made its way downstream. This informed scientists that Mars does have the capability of hosting shallow lakes and rivers at the very least. Further, discoveries of clay and minerals in samples taken from these previous bodies of water, with minimal salt levels, indicates that the water on Mars could very well be drinkable and sustainable for human kind. Curiosity has yet to find an active body of water.
#2: Microbe-Friendly Environment
Samples collected throughout Mars have given us a good idea as to the inhabitability of the planet, as it possesses the right chemical makeup to act as a suitable environment for microbes. Key chemicals such as phosphorous, nitrogen, oxygen and sulfur are present in the atmosphere, and these chemicals are essential to human life.
More recently, carbon was discovered, with carbon being a main building block for microbial activity. Currently, no actual signs of life, past or present, have been recorded, but the environmental chemical activity does take us one step closer to potentially finding life, if it does exist.
Even more recently, methane was discovered in Mars’ atmosphere, which is even more exciting. Methane can only exist in one of two ways: either as a byproduct from living organisms, or from a chemical reaction resulting from the introduction of water into rock. It’s yet to be determined which of these two processes is responsible for the methane that’s in Mars, but methane levels have been recorded as peaking and dipping, which indicates that some form of activity is occurring.
Another discovery was that of radiation to such an extent that it could pose a serious risk to humans. The level of radiation recorded would not permit astronauts to exist on the planet without some kind of shield against it. There are two forms of radiation present in the atmosphere: that which is derived from galactic cosmic rays, and that which is derived from solar energetic particles. This data gives NASA scientists the ability to develop means for allowing astronauts to be present on Mars in a safe manner, that protects them from this radiation.
This is Still Only the Beginning
Curiosity has been instrumental in our understanding of Mars, and, more specifically, its potential to act as an inhabitable location for humans. If you're looking to find some interesting Space patches on these events you can find them here. Curiosity’s mission is still active, due to the enormous wealth of information it has given us, and this means that its discoveries are nowhere near reaching a close.