The Union Recorder

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April 22, 2014

OUR SPACE: Curiosity is working hard on Mars

MILLEDGEVILLE — What do old sidewalks and the planet Mars have in common?

Why, surface features, of course!

You all know the kind of sidewalks — or driveways — that I’m talking about: the ones with the big cracks that make entire sections of the walkway heave up, buckle and break, making the surface rife with overlapping shards of all sizes, tilted at all angles and generally making you watch your step as you venture across them.

The Curiosity Rover can sympathize — and you can understand what it’s like to be a Martian scientist right now.

Curiosity arrived at a site called “The Kimberley” early this month, and its daily grind has been adjusted from driving mode to science mode. The Kimberley is a treasure trove for any rock-fan, and yes, it looks exactly like one of those cracked and buckled-up old sidewalks. At this site on Mars different types of rock had been identified long before the rover got there, and now Curiosity is rolling up its virtual sleeves and getting down and dirty.

On the long trek across Gale Crater Curiosity has been doing science experiments here and there - shooting laser beams at rocks and analyzing the spectrum of the sparks that flew as a result. It also took a ton of pictures of the fascinating landscape, close-ups of rocks and panoramic vistas.

But now it’s going to stay put for a while and work its way through the fascinating array of minerals that are so conveniently close together at this particular site. It might even get a chance to use its rock abrasion drill to bore a hole into a rock and collect the dust and then analyze it in one of its onboard labs.

Curiosity is still a good ways away from Mount Sharp, its ultimate goal, and scientists and engineers expect to arrive in the Mount Sharp foothills late this summer. However, for Curiosity — as indeed in real life — the journey is at least as important as the destination. I’m sure you’ve heard that little gem before.

And sure enough, Curiosity’s catalog of discoveries up to this point has been impressive enough; about a year ago it discovered the site of an ancient lakebed near Yellowknife Bay. The conclusion was that this site could have once been hospitable to life. Sadly, the organic molecules that everyone had hoped for were never found, but scientists aren’t discouraged.

We all know that Mars isn’t a good place to make a living. Super-cold and super-dry, with air too thin to breathe and not enough oxygen to sustain life as we know it, Mars also has to contend with a tremendous amount of radiation, since it lacks the protective radiation belts that Earth fortunately still has. The amount of destructive radiation Mars receives is enough to hack apart even the most resilient organic compounds, and scientists now realize that in order to get to a place where those compounds, or indeed microbial life, might still exist you have to dig pretty deep. At current estimates that’s at least three feet.

Sadly, Curiosity doesn’t have a drill long enough - that will have to be done by a future Mars mission. And remember, that’s not what Curiosity is there to do anyway. It’s primary job is to identify areas that could have been conducive to life, not to find life or traces thereof. So, Curiosity wins anyway!

Keep up with our best pal on Mars. It’s easy! If you’re on Twitter you can simply follow it and get tweets from the rover every day! Check it out at https://twitter.com/MarsCuriosity.

Beate Czogalla is the Professor of Theater Design in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Georgia College & State University. She has had a lifelong interest in space exploration and has been a Solar System Ambassador for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/NASA for many years. She can be reached at our_space2@yahoo.com   

 

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