Right now, there is a lot of buzz over NASA’s Curiosity rover, or more specifically, what it has discovered on the Red Planet that has everyone excited but not giving any specifics at the same time. Right now, current gossip involves the rover’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, which is designed to look for organic compounds on the Martian surface.
Still, though, no one knows anything for sure about the development John Grotzinger, lead investigator for the mission, called “one for the history books.”
Expectations in the scientific community are also mixed, with some believing the hype is real while others are preparing for a let-down. One thing is certain, though: many expect that the findings will have something to do with organic compounds, with only the magnitude of the discovery being the uncertain point.
As for what is being kept under wraps many expect the findings to be unveiled at this year’s meeting of the American Geophysical Union, which will be held from December 3-7.
As for the mission itself, Curiosity represents the next generation of Mars rovers, serving as a successor to Spirit and Opportunity(landed 2004), which served as successors to Sojourner (landed 1997). Curiosity is, by far, the most ambitious Mars mission yet and will attempt to discover whether Mars ever was home to/was once suitable for life. The 8 main objectives of the mission are as follows:
1. Determine the nature/amount of organic compounds
2. Identify the building blocks of life as we know it
3. Look for traces of past life
4. Investigate Martian geology
5. Discover how rocks/soils were formed
6. Assess atmospheric evolution
7. Try and understand the current water cycle
8. Identify the surface radiation from the Sun
In terms of what the rover has to offer, it is truly breathtaking.
To start with, the rover will be powered nuclear, rather than solar energy like its predecessors, which means that Curiosity will be able to operate year-round. The rover will carry 3 cameras, a laser several spectrometers, a sampling tool, a radiation detector, atmospheric assessment tools, water detector, as well as navigation cameras designed to help the rover act autonomously by helping it avoid hazards on the Martian surface.
For NASA, there is a lot riding on Curiosity, far more than the mission itself. For starters, Curiosity is set to be the last flagship missionfor the foreseeable future as these most ambitious missions, commonly costing over $1 billion, have been eliminated from NASA’s future plans thanks to extensive budget cuts However, there is hope within NASA that a successful mission may spur the public to be more interested in planetary science. The hope: greater public support in planetary exploration will spur Congress to allocate more funding for NASA, which is to see its planetary science budget drastically cut for the 2013 fiscal year.
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