A Triumph in Exploration

The Mars Science Laboratory is the most impressive planetary science mission to date

Science in the Public Eye

It’s been exactly ten months since the Mars Science Laboratory was launched on an Atlas V rocket from Earth, and after landing on Mars last month it is taking the first steps toward the most impressive exploratory science mission in human history. The mission has been an unqualified success so far, having accomplished every objective to date. The mission has also drawn considerably more public following than NASA is accustomed to, with even President Obama suggesting that a more interesting hairstyle, in homage to one of the NASA scientists, might boost his reelection hopes.

A large degree of the publicity that the mission drew was due to the Rube Goldberg-esque landing device that was required. While previous Mars landers and rovers were able to land using a combination of rockets and airbags, the sheer size of the Curiosity rover made it impossible to rely solely on these techniques. The key innovation for the Mars Science Laboratory was the Sky Crane, a flying craft from which Curiosity was suspended gently onto the surface for the last fifty meters of its descent. In retrospect, it’s easy to take for granted that everything worked exactly as expected. In reality, the majority of Martian missions have failed somewhere along the way. To successfully complete a mission of such complexity is, to date, the crowning achievement of planetary science.

Curiosity is the largest planetary lander to date, weighs roughly the same amount as a small vehicle, and has over a dozen research and science instruments. The rover is nuclear-powered, making it the most compact nuclear-powered vehicle ever created, and could potentially last for dozens of years, far outstripping its two-year mission length. The mission is notable for its focus on biological and environmental research, focusing largely on searching for organic compounds, investigating the history of the Martian atmosphere, and looking for clues that may indicate previous life on Mars.

It is unlikely that Curiosity will find any evidence of existing life on Mars, but she may find evidence of past life on Mars and could certainly identify building blocks necessary to support life. There’s growing evidence for the existence of liquid water on Mars, as well as organic compounds and even amino acids. Several of the instruments aboard, including the Chemistry and Mineralogy instrument and ChemCam systems, will give the most accurate readings to date as to whether Mars could support life that we are familiar with. So far the rover has traversed over 300 meters without incident (which, to my knowledge, is a record in the Greater Boston area). Last week, the first contact science mission was performed on a rock named after the late engineer Jake Matijevic by the APXS, a spectrometer used to determine the chemical composition of the rock.

To determine that life either once existed or may exist in the future on Mars would be incredibly significant in its own right. But the real significance lies in the fact that if life could exist on two planets in our own solar system, it’s a much easier bet that, not only are we not alone in the universe, but that the universe is abundant with life. Analysis of the Martian atmosphere and geology will also provide valuable insights into the Earth so that we can better understand and take care of our own planet for future generations.

There are many standing impediments to humans living freely on Mars that will remain, regardless of what Curiosity discovers. The temperature variance is immense, the atmosphere is not conducive to our biology, and, as a result, the radiation at the surface would cause an immense amount of damage. Furthermore, Mars lacks the protective magnetic field Earth has, allowing solar wind to continuously strip the barren planet of any atmosphere, meaning that even if we could give Mars an atmosphere, it would not be sustainable. I have no doubt that humans will someday live on Mars, but turning it into anything resembling home would be a daunting task.

We have the great fortune at living at a tantalizingly interesting junction in history. For the past 3.8 billion years our ancestors have been confined to a single planet, and in the past 50 years, we’ve begun to take our first furtive steps out into the void. Over the next century, we will continue to explore the universe around us and will one day, for the first time, call a place other than Earth home. In launching at the sunset of the space shuttle era, the Mars Science Laboratory is also symbolic of the dawn of a new age of exploration that is only just beginning. The Mars Science Laboratory will expand our knowledge of life in the universe more than any mission to date and is a key leap forward into the future.

Jack M. Cackler is a Ph.D. candidate in biostatistics. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.