The Mars “Curiosity” Rover: What Do We Hope to Learn?

Mike Murray

NASA’s latest mission to the red planet isn’t just another rover – it’s a massive laboratory on wheels. Ok, I don’t mean “massive” like a mountain but compared to the microwave-sized Sojourner proof-of-concept rover of 1997, this thing is a monster. Over a thousand pounds and the size of a small car, this new rover is big for a reason. Just getting it onto the surface is one of the wildest technological marvels NASA has ever attempted (check out the video “7 minutes of terror”).

photo credit: NASA JPL

Curiosity, or the “Mars Science Laboratory” as it is officially known, will carry tools and detectors unlike anything we’ve put on Mars before. While the two Mars Exploration Rovers “Spirit” and “Opportunity” used instruments to find evidence for water and climate history, Curiosity has mechanisms to take the search for life on Mars a lot further. This is the mission where NASA hopes to find evidence that life ever existed on the red planet. Think of it as an extension of the phrase “follow the water!” What are the other ingredients that life would require? Curiosity will look for life sources like carbon, water, sunlight and chemical energy, as well as hazards to life in the form of radiation.

The hopes are that the new roving lab will find conditions conducive to a habitable environment, either in the present or in the past. It will do this several ways:

• Examine rock and soil for the presence of organic compounds, namely carbon-based molecules.
• Identify minerals through X-ray diffraction and fluorescence methods.
• Look at the broad spectrum of surface radiation.
• Measure the water and carbon dioxide cycle of Mars.
• Assess the long term rock and soil building process.

One of Curiosity’s most interesting tools is its 7 foot-long robotic arm, which wields a 2 inch drill in order to take detailed measurements deep inside Martian rocks.

Curiosity's crane arm held high. photo credit: NASA JPL

A crucial element of the mission is the selection of an appropriate landing site. Gale Crater was chosen for its evidence of water and mineral composition, but also because the 3-mile-high central peak shows evidence of complex layering, increasing the chances of measuring the past history of Mars, especially its habitability.

As elements of the mission unfold, we’ll be presenting information and images in our Hansen Dome Theatre through our “Dateline Mars” and “Night Vision” programs. Check our theater schedule for show times!

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