Could the Planet Mars Support Life?

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Could the Red Planet Support Life?

Curiosity, the newest Mars Science Laboratory scheduled to land on Mars in early August 2012 might answer this question


Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun in the Solar System. Named after the Roman god of war, Mars, it is often described as the “Red Planet” as the iron oxide prevalent on its surface gives it a reddish appearance. Mars is a terrestrial planet with a thin atmosphere, having surface features reminiscent both of the impact craters of the Moon and the volcanoes, valleys, deserts, and polar ice caps of Earth. The rotational period and seasonal cycles of Mars are likewise similar to those of Earth, as is the tilt that produces the seasons.

Mars is the site of Olympus Mons, the highest known mountain within the Solar System, and of Valles Marineris, the largest canyon. The smooth Borealis basin in the northern hemisphere covers 40% of the planet and may be a giant impact feature.
Size comparison of Earth and Mars.
Until the first successful flyby of Mars occurred in 1965, by Mariner 4, many speculated about the presence of liquid water on the planet’s surface. This was based on observed periodic variations in light and dark patches, particularly in the polar latitudes, which appeared to be seas and continents; long, dark striations were interpreted by some as irrigation channels for liquid water. These straight line features were later explained as optical illusions, though geological evidence gathered by unmanned missions suggest that Mars once had large-scale water coverage on its surface.
In 2005, radar data revealed the presence of large quantities of water ice at the poles  and at mid-latitudes.  The Mars rover Spirit sampled chemical compounds containing water molecules in March 2007. The Phoenix lander directly sampled water ice in shallow Martian soil on July 31, 2008.     — Source: Wikipedia

The Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity

Launched on Nov 26, 2011,  the Mars Science Laboratory “Curiosity” is scheduled to land on Mars in early August 2012. [ Image Credit: United Launch Alliance ]
This exploration mission is unprecedented in goals and machinery. The wheeled robot is carrying suite of 10 instruments and even a laser to research the Martian past.
The rover will assess whether Mars ever was, or is still today, an environment able to support microbial life.
Mars Science Laboratory will study Mars’ habitability
Mars Science Laboratory is part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, a long-term effort of robotic exploration of the red planet. Launched on Nov. 26, 2011, 7:02 a.m. PST (10:02 a.m. EST) Mars Science Laboratory is a rover that will assess whether Mars ever was, or is still today, an environment able to support microbial life. In other words, its mission is to determine the planet’s “habitability.”
To find out, the rover will carry the biggest, most advanced suite of instruments for scientific studies ever sent to the martian surface. The rover will analyze dozens of samples scooped from the soil and drilled from rocks. The record of the planet’s climate and geology is essentially “written in the rocks and soil” — in their formation, structure, and chemical composition. The rover’s onboard laboratory will study rocks, soils, and the local geologic setting in order to detect chemical building blocks of life (e.g., forms of carbon) on Mars and will assess what the martian environment was like in the past.

About the size of a small SUV, NASA’s Curiosity rover is well equipped for a tour of Gale Crater on Mars. This impressive rover has six-wheel drive and the ability to turn in place a full 360 degrees, as well as the agility to climb steep hills. During a nearly two-year prime mission after landing on Mars, the rover will investigate whether Gale Crater ever offered conditions favorable for microbial life, including the chemical ingredients for life.  Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech 

Mars Science Laboratory relies on innovative technologies
Mars Science Laboratory will rely on new technological innovations, especially for landing. The spacecraft will descend on a parachute and then, during the final seconds prior to landing, lower the upright rover on a tether to the surface, much like a sky crane. Once on the surface, the rover will be able to roll over obstacles up to 75 centimeters (29 inches) high and travel up to 90 meters (295 feet) per hour. On average, the rover is expected to travel about 30 meters (98 feet) per hour, based on power levels, slippage, steepness of the terrain, visibility, and other variables.
The rover will carry a radioisotope power system that generates electricity from the heat of plutonium’s radioactive decay. This power source gives the mission an operating lifespan on Mars’ surface of a full martian year (687 Earth days) or more, while also providing significantly greater mobility and operational flexibility, enhanced science payload capability, and exploration of a much larger range of latitudes and altitudes than was possible on previous missions to Mars.
Arriving at Mars in 2012, Mars Science Laboratory will serve as an entrée to the next decade of Mars exploration. It represents a huge step in Mars surface science and exploration capability because it will:
  • demonstrate the ability to land a very large, heavy rover to the surface of Mars (which could be used for a future Mars Sample Return mission that would collect rocks and soils and send them back to Earth for laboratory analysis)
  • demonstrate the ability to land more precisely in a 20-kilometer (12.4-mile) landing circle
  • demonstrate long-range mobility on the surface of the red planet (5-20 kilometers or about 3 to 12 miles) for the collection of more diverse samples and studies.

Getting to Mars

Engineers deliberately planned the spacecraft’s initial trajectory to miss Mars by about 35,000 miles (56,400 kilometers). This precaution protects Mars from Earth’s microbes, because the Centaur upper stage of the launch vehicle, which is not thoroughly cleaned the way the spacecraft is, leaves Earth on the same trajectory as the spacecraft. The planned trajectory ensures that the Centaur will not hit Mars. The launch put the spacecraft on an actual trajectory missing Mars by about 38,000 miles (61,200 kilometers). Planned trajectory correction maneuvers will put the spacecraft on course and on timing to land at Mars’ Gale Crater on Aug. 6, 2012, Universal Time (evening of Aug. 5, Pacific Daylight Time).
  • The spacecraft is controlled by star-guided navigation system.
  • Telecommunications are active at a downlink rate of 25 kilobits per second.
  • Electrical output from the cruise stage solar array is 800 watts.
  • Thrusters are warmed by catalytic bed heaters.
  • As of 9 a.m. PST (noon EST) on Friday, Dec. 2, the spacecraft traveled 10.8 million miles (17.3 million kilometers) of its 352-million-mile (567-million-kilometer) flight to Mars,
  • and is moving at 7,500 mph (12,000 kilometers per hour) relative to Earth and at 73,800 mph (118,700 kilometers per hour) relative to the sun.

Article and Images Curtsey of NASA and JPL

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