Curiosity: The Mars Science Laboratory

Notes from a panel at Chicon 7. Saturday, September 1, 2012, with weblinks and occasional
amplifications added.

Curiosity: The Mars Science Laboratory

The Mars Science Laboratory has the ambitious mission to study the climate, geology, and potential for life of Mars. Weeks after landing, what have we learned? What do we expect to find out in the coming months?

Bill Higgins [beamjockey], Brother Guy Consolmagno [brotherguy]

Lure of Mars. Schiaparelli

Orbiters. Currently the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Express. In addition to their normal missions, the orbiters relay Curiousity’s data back to Earth. They have much more powerful radios. We have infrastructure on [or last least above] Mars!

On surface of Mars: Follow the water to look for life (present or past). Looking at current and past evnvironments.

Mars is a dynamic system. Need to understand its geology and climate to search for life.

No plate tectonics. Likely there was surface water in the past.

There have been recent (since we have been observing closely) changes on the surface of Mars — streaks.

Generally the Martian atmosphere is in chemical equilibrium with the surface, unlike that of Earth (O2 is very reactive). Possible exception: Methane. Equilibrium means no life now. Perhaps sometime in the past.

Looking for signatures of past microbial life.

Curiosity is the latest in NASA’s family of surface rovers. Unlike its predecessors, it does not use solar power. Experience has shown that solar panels get degraded by Martian dust. Instead it uses a Plutonium Thermoelectric Generator.

Landing process: “Seven minutes of terror”— Landing was completely autonomous. Because of the light speed delay there was no possibility of intervention from Earth. The complicated landing system was required by the weight of the rover. Curiosity’s landing was much more accurate than its predecessors.

  • Hazcam
  • Mastcam
  • Chemcam. Laser induced breakdown spectroscopy
  • Robot field geologist. Mobile laboatory.
  • MSL science payload
  • Mission of one Mars year. ‘Daily’ routine of controllers is on Mars time
  • Instruments from several countries
  • Everything on Mars is dusty, so Curiosity has a wire brush to clean samples. Some nearby rocks had dust
    cleared by the landing rockets
  • Curiousity carries spare drill bits.
  • Curiosity has a funnel for loading
    material for analysis. Also a test funnel to make sure stuff does not get stuck.
  • There are three distinct geological regions around the landing site.
  • Curiosity can drive up to 100 meters per Sol (Martian day).
  • There are IAU rules for naming craters and other features on Mars, so “Mt. Sharp” and “Bradbury” are not official names, at least for now.
  • Colors in pictures of objects on Mars are influenced by the Martian atmosphere. They would look different here
    on Earth.

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