The Science of Curiosity: Seeking Signs of Past Mars Habitability
NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission will deliver the Mars rover Curiosity, a nearly 2,000-pound (1-ton) car-size robotic roving laboratory, to the surface of Mars at 10:31 p.m. PDT on August 5 (1:31 a.m. EDT August 6). The nuclear-powered Curiosity is the largest manmade object to ever touch down on another planet. Curiosity’s landing will mark the start of a two-year prime mission to investigate whether one of the most intriguing places on Mars ever has offered an environment favorable for microbial life.
The mission will study whether the Gale Crater area of Mars has evidence of past and present habitable environments. These studies will be part of a broader examination of past and present processes in the Martian atmosphere and on its surface. The research will use 10 instrument-based science investigations. The mission’s rover, Curiosity, carries the instruments for these investigations and will support their use by providing overland mobility, sample-acquisition capabilities, power and communications. The primary mission will last one Mars year (98 weeks).
Curiosity—Robot Geologist and Chemist in One
The rover will analyze dozens of samples scooped from the soil, drilled from rocks, and pulled from the atmosphere. The record of Mars’ climate and geology is essentially “written in the rocks and soil”—in their formation, structure, and chemical composition. Curiosity’s on-board laboratory will study the samples and the local geologic setting in order to detect chemical building blocks of life (e.g., forms of carbon) on Mars and assess what the martian environment was like in the past, addressing the fundamental question, was Mars ever a habitat for microbial life.
Curiosity’s Information Brochure: Information about the Mars Rover and the mission (PDF)
- Assess biological potential of the martian site
- Characterize geology and geochemistry
- Investigate the role of water, atmospheric evolution and climate
- Characterize the spectrum of surface radiation
Gale Crater—Curiosity Landing Site
Gale Crater is a fascinating place to explore because of the mountain of layered materials in the middle—a mound about three times as high as the rim of the Grand Canyon (5 km/3 miles) on Earth! The layers tell a story about what Mars was like in the past, perhaps spanning much of the early history of the Red Planet. Studies from orbit have revealed that the layers have different minerals, that usually from in water, depending on their height. Near the bottom of the mound are clay minerals. Above the clay-bearing layers are layers with minerals containing sulfur and oxygen. These different layers represent different environmental histories of Mars.