Successful ‘Curiosity’ Landing May Lead to a Resurge in Astronauts


Image from usatoday.com

On early Monday NASA’s rover, Curiosity, successfully landed on Mars, marking a paramount accomplishment in science and technology.  The 2,000 pound car-sized rover traveled 352 million miles to land in the pinpoint location of Gale Crater, a feat never before accomplished and, depending on the discoveries Curiosity turns up, may lead to manned-spacecraft missions to the Red Planet in the future.

In a statement, President Barrack Obama described the landing as “an unprecedented feat of technology that will stand as a point of national pride far into the future.”  Later on in the statement, Mr. Obama talked about the possible new course of sending U.S. astronauts into space—by allowing NASA to partner with American companies.

This new idea of partnership has the intention of allowing NASA to continue their pioneering research, while easing the burden on taxpayer’s pockets.  While the idea is still in its development stages, American companies must take notice of this landmark landing and gain confidence in NASA’s amazing abilities.

Curiosity is the most sophisticated and heaviest rover to date.  In order to land on Mars, NASA had to toss out older methods they used for the 2004 landing of the previous rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, which consisted of enveloping them in air bags as the bounced to a halt.  Curiosity relied on some conventional methods similar to that of a space shuttle, such as a heat shield and supersonic parachute.  On top of that, engineers developed a new way to gently lower the expensive rover gently to the surface—at a grueling 2 mph—by lowering curiosity from cables attached to a rocket powered backpack.  Once Curiosity safely touched down, the cables severed and the rocket crash-landed some distance away.  Add to everything that scientists were able to mark and successfully land at the desired destination, Gale Crater, after 8 months and 352 million miles of travel, and well, you have “an unprecedented feat of technology”, for lack of better words.

The location of Gale Crater is important because scientists believe it is the best chance the rover has at discovering evidence that life once existed on this now cold, dry, and desolate planet.  Gale Crater is thought to possibly have been a lake long ago when Mars was warmer and wetter (though I’m still unclear how Mars used to be warmer, given its distance from the sun).

Curiosity will spend the next year navigating up the 3-mile high Mt. Sharp and take soil samples from each level.  The soil samples should provide a historical record of Mars through the eras, based on the measurements of minerals within the different layers.  Even if evidence of organic material is found in these layers, it does not mean the life once existed on Mars, as organic molecules can be found in many things, ranging from asphalt to meteorites.

Some maybe crossing their fingers for pictures of fossilized microorganisms, though even that would not prove that life once existed on Mars until another mission was carried out to bring back soil and fossil samples.

On its way to Mars Curiosity measured radiation levels so scientists could determine risks to astronauts if a manned trip to Mars ever took place.

Since the 60’s, the U.S., Japan, Russia, and Europe have carried out dozens of missions to Mars.  Flybys, orbiters, and landings, over half of these missions have ended in failure, giving Mars the aura of a spacecraft graveyard.  This successful landing should give companies assurance in NASA’s superb ability to pioneer the space.

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