Mars is the next pit stop in the space exploration program where we all aim to civilize and explore the Martian land. The terrestrial planet is half the size of Earth, has a thin active atmosphere made of carbon dioxide, argon, and nitrogen. Like our home planet, it has polar ice caps, volcanoes, canyons, weather and a variety of familiar landforms, like wind-formed dunes and sedimentary deposits such as Transverse Aeolian Ridges (TARs) & Polar Layered Deposits (PLDs) are present as well. Over the years, we have sent five rovers to learn more about the Red Planet.
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What are Rovers?
Rovers are robotic vehicles, designed for exploring the surface of a planet or moon. They help scientists in their quest to understand the planetary composition.
The Mars Science Laboratory and its rover Curiosity is one of NASA’s most aspiring Mars missions. The spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on November 26, 2011, and touched down on the Martian land on August 6, 2012. The primary mission of the rover is to find out if Mars once had what all life needs, lasting water, and the right chemical ingredients.
All about Curiosity:
Curiosity is the largest robotic vehicle after the Perseverance to ever land on Mars.
The rover is powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, which produces electricity from the heat of plutonium-238’s radioactive decay. The wheels of the rover have a 20 inch (50.8 cm) diameter to help it easily roll over rocks and sand, without getting stuck. On a long driving day, it still only travels about 660 feet or 201 meters. To examine the Martian surface and environment, Curiosity has a suite of instruments on board. This includes cameras, radiation detectors, spectrometers, environment, and atmospheric sensors.
Study of Martian Surface:
The Curiosity rover landed in the Gale Crater. This crater is special because it has a tall mountain in the middle having many layers of rocks beneath. Each layer is made of different minerals from different periods. The rover acquires the mineral, soil, and rock samples from the crater for onboard analysis.
The large size of Curiosity allows it to carry an ingenious kit of science instruments.
So What are Science Instruments?
These are the instruments used for collecting data about the atmosphere, geology, environmental conditions, and possible biosignatures.
Cameras: There are three advanced cameras onboard the Curiosity rover.
- MastCam: The Mastcam takes panoramic colour images of the surface, atmospheric, and the terrain ahead of the rover. For transmission to Earth, the camera features an inbuilt data buffer that can store thousands of images and hours of high-definition video footage.
- Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI): At scales smaller than the diameter than that of a human hair, the camera aids in imaging of minerals, texture, and composition of rocks and soil. The camera carries both white light and ultraviolet light sources making it functional both day and night.
- Mars Descent Imager (MARDI): The camera helped the scientists and geologists to select an optimum path for the exploration of Gale Crater.
Spectrometers: There are four different spectrometers onboard the Curiosity rover.
- Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS): The APXS exposes the rock and soil to alpha particles (are helium nuclei consisting of 2 protons and 2 neutrons) and X-rays emitted during the radioactive decay of the element Curium. It takes two to three hours to reveal all elements, including small amounts of trace elements.
- Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam): The ChemCam analyzes the chemical composition of rocks. It rapidly identifies the rock being studied i.e. whether the rock is sedimentary or volcanic
- Chemistry & Mineralogy X-Ray Diffraction (CheMin): The CheMin discovers and measures the abundances of various minerals on Mars. The minerals found on Mars are olivine, pyroxenes, haematite, magnetite, gypsum, and phyllosilicates (disilicate). The spectrometer takes 10 hours of analysis time, spread out over two or more Martian days.
- Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM): SAM is an array of three instruments; a mass spectrometer, gas chromatograph, and tunable laser spectrometer.
- Mass Spectrometer: It detects the key elements necessary for life such as oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, sulfur, and phosphorus.
- Gas Chromatograph: It separates the gases from the heated rocks to aid in identifying them.
- Tunable Laser Spectrometer: Detects water vapours and determines whether methane, if found, is produced by life or geologic processes.
Radiation Detectors: There are two advanced radiation detectors onboard the rover.
- Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD): It monitored the space radiation in space on the way to Mars and still monitors the radiation on the surface of the Martian land. The information will help scientists to plan human missions to the Martian land by knowing how much shielding from radiation astronauts will need to protect them. It also investigates how much radiation has affected the chemical and isotopic composition of Martian rocks and soils.
- Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN): It looks for significant changes in the energies of neutrons released from the Martian subsurface that indicates how much water is chemically bound in the soil or rocks. It detects water content as low as 1/10th of one percent.
- Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS): REMS contains the weather instruments which measures and provide daily & seasonal reports on atmospheric pressure, humidity, ultraviolet radiation, air temperature, and ground temperature around the rover.
- Mars Science Laboratory Entry Descent and Landing Instruments (MEDLI): MEDLI consisted of two kinds of instruments (with seven sensors of each kind) that were installed in 14 places on the spacecraft’s heat shield which help in measuring the heating and atmospheric pressure changes that occurred during the descent to help determine the effects on different parts of the spacecraft.
It has been nine years since the rover landed on the Martian surface to study different Martian environments that could have supported microbial life in the planet’s ancient past when groundwater and lakes existed within the Gale Crater.Enjoyed reading this article? Consider reading: The 2nd Messenger: A wonderful astronomical tale