Intensely curious

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it has been a remarkably successful trait for mankind. The desire to understand life, to uncover the intricate tapestry of how our universe works has given rise to science, the most successful discipline in the history of mankind.

Curiosity is a key ingredient in science because it:

  • drives observations over speculation
  • confirms or dismisses our thinking/theories
  • stimulates the mind to actively pursue ideas rather than passively accepting the status quo
  • opens up the possibility of new discoveries
  • stimulates and excites the intellect

The word curiosity comes from the Latin curiosus meaning careful, diligent investigation, so it is wonderfully appropriate that NASA named its latest Mars rover Curiosity.

Curiosity is more than “just another Mars rover,” it is a an extremely bold, aggressive space exploration project that has all the hallmarks of the Apollo program in that it pushes the bounds of our current technical limitations to the maximum. Consider this photograph of Spirit/Opportunity launched in 2004, Sojourner from 1996 (middle) and Curiosity from 2012, the differences are obvious.

Sojourner was a proof of concept, a mere toy in comparison to Spirit and Opportunity, but it is Curiosity that carries some real scientific punch. When NASA says it is the Mars Scientific Laboratory, they’re not kidding, Curiosity is decked out with an impressive array of scientific instruments.

  • Three primary cameras
    • MastCam: true color images at 1600×1200 pixels along with 720p HD video
      • Medium Angle Camera with a 34 mm focal length
      • Narrow Angle Camera with a 100 mm focal length
      • Each camera has 8 GB of flash memory, capable of storing over 5,500 raw images, and applies real-time lossless JPEG compression.
    • Mars Hand Lens Imager, a camera mounted to the robotic arm on the rover, capable of capturing microscopic images of rock and soil, with a resolution as high as 14.5µm (micrometers) per pixel, which is frustratingly close to resolving Earth-bound bacteria (2-10µm), cloroplasts (8µm). By comparison, spider silk is also around 8µm, but this camera is pretty darn impressive for a microscope being flung halfway across the solar system
    • MSL Mars Descent Imager will take color images at 1600×1200 pixels with a 1.3-millisecond exposure time starting at distances of about 3.7 km to near 5 meters from the ground (you’ll see shots from this one in the news reels immediately after the landing)
  • ChemCam is a suite of remote sensing instruments, including the first laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) system to be used for planetary science and a remote micro-imager (RMI). The LIBS laser is capable of vaporising small samples of rock up to 7 meters away (better than sharks with frigg’n laser beams on their heads), and observing the spectrum of the light emitted by the vaporized rock to accurately determine its composition. In addition to this, the remote micro-imager can resolve objects 1 mm in size at 10m distance
  • Alpha-particle X-ray spectrometer will irradiate samples with alpha particles and map the spectra of X-rays that are re-emitted to determine the composition of samples
  • CheMin is the Chemistry and Mineralogy X-ray diffraction and X-ray fluorescence instrument that will be used to identify the abundance of the minerals on Mars.
  • SAM is the “sample analysis at Mars” and will analyze organics and gases from both atmospheric and solid samples. This package has a very good chance of detecting life on Mars.
    • Quadrupole Mass Spectrometer will detect gases sampled from the atmosphere or those released from solid samples by heating
    • Gas Chromatograph will be used to separate out individual gases from a complex mixture into molecular components.
    • Tunable Laser Spectrometer will perform precision measurements of oxygen and carbon isotope ratios in carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) in the atmosphere of Mars in order to distinguish between a geochemical and a biological origin, so we’ll find out once and for all whether Mars has cows
    • SAM also has a chemical separation and processing laboratory for enriching any organic molecules found in a sample, the ability to store 74 sample cups, and an oven to heat samples to 1000 degrees Celsius to release gases to reveal any possible organic composition
  • RAD is the radiation assessment detector is already running. It’s purpose is to determine the shielding needs for future human explorers while en-route to Mars
  • DAN is the dynamic albedo of neutrons for measuring hydrogen or ice and water at or near the Martian surface
  • REMS is the rover environmental monitoring station, a meteorological package and an ultraviolet sensor measuring atmospheric pressure, humidity, wind currents and direction, air and ground temperature and ultraviolet radiation levels.
  • Hazard avoidance cameras are NASA’s souped-up version of the parking camera in your car, providing Curiosity with autonomous hazard avoidance while driving, and will help safely position the robotic arm on rocks and soils. These cameras safeguard against the rover inadvertently crashing into obstacles, and work in tandem with software that allows the rover to make its own safety choices (NASA should have outsourced this to Google).
  • The navigation cameras are a pair of black and white navigation cameras mounted on the mast to support ground navigation, and will provide 3-D imagery or Mars

Packing this much equipment into one vehicle has come at a cost in terms of mass. On Earth, Curiosity weighs in at 900 kilograms, or 2000 pounds. Curiosity is the size and weight of a small car, and that where the mission will push the bounds of technical innovation in space flight. After more than eight months hurtling through interplanetary space, Curiosity will approach Mars at 13,000 miles per hour, a speed that would allow it to cross the continental US in under 15 minutes. Curiosity will decelerate from 5,800 meters per second (3.6 miles per second) down to less than a meter a second within ten harrowing minutes using a series of autonomous, automated manoeuvres. Curiosity will go from screaming across New York City in under a second down to a walking pace in roughly the time you eat your breakfast.

Curiosity is carrying the largest heat-shield ever deployed in space. The entry/landing sequence will see the spacecraft undergo six transformations, from losing its interplanetary cruising stage to the rocket-propelled sky-crane that will lower the rover gently down to the surface of Mars. Seventy-six pyrotechnic devices need to fire as half-a-million lines of computer code execute during the descent, deploying the largest supersonic parachute ever built.

It’s no wonder the NASA publicity department has labelled this as “seven minutes of terror.”

Curious? You can learn more about Curiosity and follow the rover’s exploits at the NASA JPL website

6 thoughts on “Intensely curious

  1. On a similar note. I am rooting for this experiment the Russians are doing to live in a contained environment to test the limits of human abilities for a trip to Mars to be successful. At this point I don’t think it should be a race, Countries should work together and travel to Mars.

    • Yeah. I can’t see the US conducting the manned exploration of Mars alone, which will make for very interesting group dynamics among the astronauts, taikonauts, cosmonauts, etc in the first team. As for who gets to step out first on to Martian soil, well, that will be a sticking point, I’m sure.

  2. Gee, wouldn’t it be nice if we went to Mars as human beings instead of as our nationality? In the meantime, my youngest is a budding roboticist and someday, I hope one of her creations will be a step between now and when people make it to another planet.

  3. Pingback: Scientific Highlights « THINKING SCI-FI

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