Curiosity’s Search Begins (Issue #4)

by: Nicole Willett

The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity Rover was launched on November 26, 2011 from Cape Canaveral Florida.  The MSL had generated quite a fan base over the years and months leading up to her launch and landing.  On August 5, 2012 the entire world was watching with heightened anticipation.  As the updates were streaming through live from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, at The Mars Society Convention hall in Pasadena, the excitement and anxiety was building.  Each update from the team at JPL received a round of applause.  When word was given of a successful landing there were high fives, laughter, tears and even a few hugs.   The successful landing of Curiosity was the culmination of many years of hard work, scientific and engineering prowess, and American ingenuity. 

blog 4 landing ellipse

Curiosity landed on target in Gale Crater.  Her successful landing proved that NASA can land a heavy rover (1,980 lbs, 899 kg) on the surface of Mars, using a technique that had not been used before.  The engineers designed a parachute combined with a sky-crane landing system.  This complex system seemed “just crazy enough to work” according to MSL’s lead engineer Adam Steltzner.   The successful landing also proved that we could land in a more precise landing circle, which is, the target area given by the scientists for the predicted landing site.   The landing site was named Bradbury Landing in honor of the late science fiction author Ray Bradbury. Almost immediately after landing Curiosity started sending images of the surface of Mars to NASA. 

Curiosity has many tasks on Mars.  Some of which are to:  assess the habitability of Mars, find the inventory and/or source of organic carbon, look for evidence of biological processes, investigate geological processes, planetary processes, cycling of water, and surface radiation.    She will start by examining the rocks and soils.  The history of a planet can be determined from studying the geology.  The suite of instruments carried on the rover will try to determine if the chemical building blocks of life are present or if they were present in the past.  Some of the scientific instruments she carries are:  several types of cameras, spectrometers, radiation detectors, environmental monitoring systems, and atmospheric instruments.  These instruments will make assessments that not only will help us to better understand the Red Planet, but it will also help prepare for human exploration.

blog 4 laser

The instrumentation on the one ton rover is the most complex suite of scientific instruments to be sent to Mars. Several types of cameras are on board, each of which have a different purpose. For example the MastCam gives true color images and uses multiple spectra.  The ChemCam is a suite of instruments that uses a laser to identify types of rocks and determine the composition of soils.  There is an Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) to determine what elements are in each sample tested.   The Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) will analyze solid and gas samples looking for organic molecules.  SAM is a suite of instruments that takes up over half of the scientific payload which has been described as having an entire Chemistry lab reduced to fit on the rover.  This mini-lab is a group of three instruments searching for compounds of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen and their potential association with life.

mars blog 4

This mission is currently underway.  Last week Curiosity discovered some unusual material on the surface of Mars and right beneath the soil nearby. The first anomalous object was determined to be debris from the rover.  When the rover scooped up soil there were other bright objects found.  On October 17, 2012 a scoop of Martian regolith was put into the CheMin, the Chemistry and Mineralogy instrument.  This will determine what the soil is composed of, and hopefully what the mysterious bright objects are.

There will be many new discoveries made by the Curiosity Rover over the next two years or more. We are all waiting patiently for anything she has to show us.  It is a very exciting and inspiring time for Earthlings.  We are witnessing events that are due to our willingness to work hard as a team to accomplish a common goal.  This is a measure of our character as human beings.  We mustcontinue our exploration… OnToMars~

In addition to this week’s blog:    A Special Presentation by Bob Bruner

Life on Mars in a Box

The environmental requirements for life are:

1. Source of molecules from which to build its own cellular structures and for reproduction

2. Source of energy to maintain biological order and to fuel the many chemical reactions that occur in life

3. Liquid medium, most likely liquid water, for transporting the molecules of life

The key to this puzzle is whether all these ingredients for life came together in the right proportions at the right time.

The image of the “Life on Mars in a Box” contains illustrations of research results that show these requirements are met on the planet Mars:

1. Image (center) of the volcanoes on Mars demonstrates that an energy source is available; other sources would be cosmic rays, UV rays, etc. coming from space

2. Dark mineral, Goethite (upper left), and light mineral, Gypsum (lower left), show hydrothermal groundwater circulation during the early history of Mars (Ehlmann et al, Nature, 2011)

3. Piece of the Murchison meteorite (lower right) contains non-biological carbon in the form of amino acids, and shows the availability of life-building molecules throughout the solar system (Kvenvolden et al, Nature, 1970)

4. Piece of the Shergottite meteorite (upper right) from Mars, which contains non-biological carbon created by volcanic action during the early history of Mars, shows a second source of life-building molecules (Steele et al, Science, 2012)


Beyond UFOs, by Jeffrey Bennet, 2008, Princeton University Press

Conversation with Pamela Conrad, NASA Astrobiologist and Assistant Principal Investigator of the SAM instrument on the Mars Science Laboratory which landed on Mars in August, 2012

Exhibit prepared by Robert Bruner

Denver Museum of Nature and Science volunteer

Images [NASA, JPL]

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