Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The Curiously Curious Curiosity



In a breaking news on Monday, 28th Sept 2015, in Washington DC, The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has announced a scientific evidence of flowing water in Mars. Images from the Mars orbit supported by soil specimens by the Mars rover indicate liquid water runs down canyons and crater walls over the summer months, according to researchers who say the discovery raises the chances of the barren planet being home to some forms of life.

Scientists are unsure where the water comes from, but it may rise up from underground ice or salty aquifers, or condense out of the thin Martian atmosphere.  “There is liquid water today on the surface of Mars,” Michael Meyer, said the lead scientist on NASA’s Mars exploration program. “Because of this, we suspect that it is at least possible to have a habitable environment today.”

The water flows could point NASA and other space agencies towards the most promising sites to find life on Mars, and to landing spots for future human missions where water can be collected from a natural supply. Oxygen and water supplies are major challenges to putting humans on Mars – so finding water there could significantly “lighten the load” of any manned mission.  “Mars is not the dry, arid planet that we thought of in the past,” said NASA’s Jim Green. 

These dark, narrow, 100 meter-long streaks are flowing downhill on Mars, and are inferred to have been formed by contemporary flowing water.


The exciting breakthroughs are made possible by images taken from the camera aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and rock and soil specimens from the Mars rover, Curiosity.

Curiosity is a car-sized robotic rover exploring Gale Crater on Mars as part of NASA’s USD$ 2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory mission. It was launched from Cape Canaveral on 26 Nov 2011 and landed in Gale Crater on 6 Aug 2012. The rover's missions include: investigation of the Martian climate and geology; assessment of whether the selected field site inside Gale Crater has ever offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life in preparation for future human explorations. 

Curiosity has discovered ‘burps’ of methane, which NASA scientists said could indicate “life or evidence of ancient methane trapped which could show ancient life”.  Most methane on Earth is produced as a waste gas by living organisms and scientists suggested the gas encountered on Mars could be from bacteria. If that were confirmed it would be the first evidence of life outside Earth. 

In early 2015, the Mars rover also found calcium perchlorate – a type of salt – in the soil, suggesting that salty liquid water could be present close to Mars’ surface. Calcium perchlorate lowers the temperature at which water freezes, which could allow it to remain in liquid form even on Mars, where temperatures drop to -125 C in winter.  The salt also absorbs water from the atmosphere, dragging it down into the surface. Tiny creatures have been discovered on Earth that can live entirely on brine, without oxygen, raising the possibility that a briny liquid on Mars could be home to some sort of primitive alien life-form. 

This major science discovery could pave the way for the search of life on the Red Planet by scientists. The exciting prospect of life on Mars also captures the interest of some of the top Hollywood producers. The latest Ridley Scott’s ‘The Martian’ tells a dramatic story of the NASA Mars exploration team sent to the arid planet in 2030, the year NASA plans to send manned mission. 

Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, was part of the ill-fated mission. He was accidently knocked down unconsciously during a fierce storm. Presumed dead, he was left behind by his fellow crew members in the barren planet. With only meagre supplies, he drew upon his ingenuity, wit and spirit to innovate and signal home that he was still alive. A botch ‘Bring Him Home’ rescue mission was scrambled by NASA but the next available ‘flight’ could be 4 years ahead. Hence, he must fight to stay alive and the only way to survive in the harsh environment was to improvise.  After careful planning and preparation (and dramatic hiccups in between) he finally made a perilous 3,200 km journey on his modified Mars rover to his rescuers’ scheduled landing site.

    A scene of ‘The Martian’ featuring a Mars rover                                        
    Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox


The movie features a futuristic Mars rover which is based on the existing Curiosity model. I had an opportunity to learn more about Curiosity during a trip to a NASA center in 2012.

    Image feed from Mars’ Curiosity  
    Image courtesy of NASA

I visited NASA Glenn Research Centre in Cleveland, Ohio, in Oct 2012 during the ASTC 2012 Conference in Columbus. The facility is one of the 10 NASA field centers across the USA providing research works for NASA’s missions. The sprawling 350 acres facility houses 140 buildings, 500 test facilities, 5 wind tunnels, 14 vacuum chambers and 2 drop towers for simulations of micro gravity.

The center has a tight security system and I was told that a few visit applications by ASTC delegates from certain countries such as China and the Middle East were declined for an obvious reason. I was one of the only two non-Americans in the small group with the other one was a Canadian.

    An aerial view of NASA Glenn Research Centre, Lewis Fields  
    Image courtesy of NASA


After surrendering my passport, we were given a briefing followed by a guided tour inside the selected facilities with more critical areas were still out of bound from visitors. A special focus was given to the research on the wheels of the Lunar and Mars rovers.  

We were shown a few wheel prototypes co-developed with Goodyear for NASA’s space missions inside the SLOPE (Simulated Lunar Operations) Lab with test rigs and equipment to study traction of rovers and other vehicles operating in soils.




                                 Mars’ Curiosity under testing at NASA’s Lab
                                 Image courtesy of NASA     

 
                                Image feed from Mars’ Curiosity   
                                Image courtesy of NASA  


Last month, image feeds from Curiosity have shown a gaping hole on the tires from the many bumps sustained by the rover since it landed in the rocky terrain in Aug 2012. 4 months later, Curiosity 's original two-year mission was extended indefinitely… and after over 3 years ‘stranded’ alone in the new frontier, it is now calling home…  

Curiosity’s six wheels are made from aluminum, a material that’s favored in the aerospace industry because it’s strong, yet lightweight. The wheels have the thickness of nine sheets of paper, or about two to three times as thick as a soda can. Each wheel has cleats to help the rover grip soft sand or climb over steep hills.  Engineers drove the wheels on a full-scale rover through rugged environments on Earth to simulate what the machine would experience on Mars. Although rock-strewn terrain seems to be the main culprit, engineers are analyzing many possible factors for the increasing pace of wear and tear.

The rover has done a superb job in the Mars exploration mission and it’s about time for Curiosity to be relieved of its official duty and for the upcoming Mars 2020 or ESA’s (European Space Agency) ExoMars rover to assume the next mission. Let’s ‘Bring Him Home’!

The short day-trip to NASA Glenn Research Centre has indeed given a glimpse of the American Space Program superiority. For me, some of my curiosities on Curiosity have been explained by none others than the NASA engineers themselves.

    An artist impression of NASA’s Mars 2020   
    Image courtesy of NASA

    An artist impression of ESA’s ExoMars rover   
    Image courtesy of ESA




Shared by Hasnan
Guest Blogger

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