Uncovering Life on Mars with the Curiosity Rover
The Curiosity Rover is a mobile laboratory built by NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory. Launched on November 26, 2011 from Cape Canaveral in Florida, Curiosity’s 23 month journey through outer space finally came to an end on August 6, 2012. On landing day, a live stream of NASA’s JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) team gave the public a small glimpse into the landing process. Upon successfully reaching its destination, Gale Crater, Curiosity began its official mission to determine if that area of the Martian surface was ever able to sustain microbial life.
Over the course of a two-year mission, Curiosity will deploy its 10 instruments to collect data on its surroundings. Curiosity will analyze samples of rocks, dust and minerals looking for any evidence of favourable conditions for life. In the first three weeks after arriving on Mars, NASA reported the rover had beamed back more data than all of the other rovers previously deployed to Mars.
As of March 2013, Curiosity has uncovered considerable evidence that suggests ancient life existed on Mars. Samples from what is thought to be an ancient lake bed reveals the remnants of clay and minerals that could have only come into being with the presence of favourable conditions for microbes.
Mount Sharp: The Key to a Martian History?
Early on in its documentation of the Red Planet, Curiosity sent back various images of Gale Crater. One image, taken with a wide angle telephoto lens, revealed a “geological unconformity” in the layers of Mount Sharp, the 5km-high peak at the centre of Gale Crater. According to the New York Times, for planetary geologists, the layers of Mount Sharp are an archive of the planet’s history and could bring us closer to discovering if Mars sustained microbial life at one time.
“Those layers are our ultimate objective,” says Mastcam (Master Camera) principal investigator Michael Malin. “The dark dune field is between us and those layers. In front of the dark sand you see redder sand, with a different composition suggested by its different color. The rocks in the foreground show diversity – some rounded, some angular, with different histories. This is a very rich geological site to look at and eventually to drive through.”
Curiosity will take the better part of a year to make its journey towards Mount Sharp, making brief stops to take readings and test samples along the way.