A Science Voice from New Zealand

Mars on Monday!

Artist's depiction of Curiosity rover on Mars. Image: NASA

by Bill Morris

It’s going to be a big weekend. Between the Olympics, Super Rugby Final and International Film Festival, it’s going to hard to do much but be glued to a screen. And then to top it all off, on Monday we land on Mars.

At around 5:30pm New Zealand time, NASA’s Curiosity rover will attempt a highly risky landing on the surface of Mars. The size of a small car, Curiosity is by far the largest rover NASA has attempted to land on the Red Planet. Its size means it will have to be landed in an entirely different way than has been attempted before, using an almost unbelieveble technique involving parachutes, rockets and a “skycrane.” Because of the 14 minutes it takes for radio signals to return to Earth, scientists watching Curiosity’s approach to Mars will not be able to control its entry to Martian atmosphere. They will simply have to hope that 8 years of planning and US$2.5 billion worth of technology can do the job to get it down safely. By the time the team at the Mars Science Laboratory have notification the lander has entered Mars’ atmosphere, the machine will already be standing on the surface of the planet ready for action, or will instead be lying in a twisted, smoking heap, having just become the most expensive piece of space junk in history.

The rover is headed for a place called the Gale Crater. This 154 km wide depression in Mars’ surface is believed to have been created by asteroid impact 3.5 – 3.8 billion years ago, at a time when both Earth and Mars were in their infancy. In the centre of the crater stands a mountain called Aeolis Mons. Gradually rising to 5.5 kilometres above the crater floor, Aeolis Mons, or Mount Sharp as it has been known, is higher than New Zealand’s Mount Cook by another third again. Scientists believe it has been created by sedimentation and subsequent erosion. This hypothesis suggest that at one time, vast amounts of water filled the Gale crater. And that could mean that at one time, life flourished on the planet. The Curiosity rover, which is equipped with the best cameras ever landed on Mars, will spend the next two years or more exploring the mountain, perhaps even scaling its summit, in an effort to unravel something of the story of Mars. That is, of course, provided everything goes to plan on Monday. (It’s worth remembering that only 40% of attempted Martian landings have been successful.)

Gale Crater, showing Aeolis Mons and planned Curiosity landing site. Image: NASA

Gale Crater, showing Aeolis Mons and planned Curiosity landing site. Image: NASA

Aeolis Mons has been selected as one of the best places yet discovered on Mars to find evidence for carbon-based life on the planet. It is hoped that just like Arizona’s Grand Canyon, the sediment layers of Aeolian Mons will provide scientists with a rich and detailed record of past geological processes on the planet. And, if evidence for carbon-based organics can be located we will at last know if, somewhere during its humid past, Mars hosted life. Or maybe, whether it still does …

I must admit I’m far from a television news junkie, so maybe I‘ve missed something, but I do find it surprising more has not been made in the media about this incredible event. After all this is one of the most audacious space exploration events in human history. If Curiosity lands safely its cameras will provide us with images of an incredible Martian terrain unlike any witnessed before. And if its onboard instruments locate evidence for past or present life on Mars, our fundamental understanding of our place in the Universe will be forever altered.

So if you can drag yourself away from the Games coverage on Monday afternoon, I strongly suggest you visit NASA’s live stream here to witness human history unfolding. Because when Curiosity’s cameras start rolling, life on Earth may never be quite the same again.



Keywords: Mars, Science Communication, Curiosity, New Zealand, Centre for Science Communciation

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