After all the excitement of London 2012 has come a thrilling scientific event – the landing and exploration of the Mars Science Laboratory a.k.a. Curiosity Rover on planet Mars.
The landing itself seemed impossible. NASA called it “Seven minutes of terror” as the spacecraft carrying Curiosity (which is the size of a small car) had to perform a series of complex turns using thrusters and discarding weights to guide it above the landing spot on the Gale crater. It then deployed a parachute and used retro rockets to slow itself down, before lowering Curiosity on ropes to the surface and having the spacecraft crash. And all this without any control from back on Earth!
As we know now, it did land successfully and has started to send back photos of the Mars landscape and examine nearby rocks. Soon it will start to live up to it’s roving name and start to move over the planet.
The Curiosity rover has been sent to Mars to find out about the type of soil and rocks (the geology) and about the climate on the planet. Mars is the nearest plant in the solar system to Earth and it is the and most like us. So studying Mars helps scientist to find out more about Earth and the rest of the Solar System.
Mars Curisoity is also looking for evidence of life on Mars. By this, scientists mean primitive forms of life, which could form, or could have formed, the basis of cells and life forms and not Martian people hiding in caves!
There has long been popular speculation that Mars has been inhabited by other life forms. As soon as people started looking at Mars with telescopes, they could see it had seasons and polar ice caps that shrunk and grew with the seasons. At the end of the 19th century, scientists studying Mars thought they could see canals (now thought to be streaks of dust), and these had been produced by past civilizations.
This gave HG Wells the idea of writing “The War of the Worlds” about an invasion from Martians fleeing their planet. War of the Worlds was broadcast in the form of a radio documentary in New York in the 1930’s and famously people thought it was happending for real and ran out in the street in fear of their lives!
By sending unmanned spacecraft to Mars, it helps pave the way for a possible manned mission to Mars. This has been talked about since the 1950’s, and particularly after the successful Moon landings between 1969 and 1972, but with budget cuts everywhere, it looks unlikely for the near future – and scientists can learn a lot from unmanned flights like this one.
NASA’s page on the Mars Science Laboratory Mission, with images and interactive activities
Latest news and photos from NASA
Let’s Go to Mars. NASA Simulation of a Mission to Mars where you need to decide which items to take
Interactive photo describing the Curiosity Rover