Curiosity: Martian Science Lab Nears Touch Down
Thursday, July 19th, 2012
by AJ Plunkett
In less than two weeks, NASA hopes to gently plop a car-sized roving laboratory onto Mars. With Canada’s help, it hopes to explore whether Earth’s ‘red’ neighbour ever had — or could have — life on it.
Martian Rocks Get Some Rays
Canada’s contribution to the Mars Science Laboratory is the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer, or APXS. APXS is a Rubik’s Cube-shaped device on the end of the rover’s arm. It will poke its sensor against Martian rocks or soil, bombard it with alpha particles and X-rays to determine — within about 10 minutes — what it’s made of.
Yes, we are being nosy neighbours, but after all the rover is named Curiosity.
The APXS is one of 10 scientific instruments aboard Curiosity provided through the international support of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), Russia’s Federal Space Agency, Spain’s Ministry of Space and Science, and a variety of public and private research centers in the United States.
The CSA contributed about $17.8 million for the design, building, and operation of APXS, which was built primarily by MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates.
Mars’ Own Science Lab
The Mars Science Laboratory launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 26 of 2011. Expected to arrive in early August of 2012, it will have travelled about 570 million kilometers (354 million miles). Be sure to catch the countdown on the website of the Jet Propulsion Lab, which is overseeing the whole 2.5-billion-dollar mission.
Besides finding out if Mars is habitable, the mission is also a major test of new technologies; it’s designed to see if very large and heavy payloads can be set down gently on the Martian surface. This is a key to possibly sending a robotic probe to gather and return rock and soil samples to Earth.
On the surface, Curiosity is designed to travel up to about 200 meters (about 660 feet) a day and roll over objects up to 65 centimeters (or 25 inches) tall.
According to NASA, the science lab will have cameras that can take extreme close-ups of terrain, promising “details smaller than the width of a human hair,” and also focus on hard to reach objects “more than an arm’s length away.”
Life on Mars is a Sample Away
In addition to APXS, Curiosity is carrying instruments that will collect and analyze samples to determine if they contain carbon (an element of life). The instruments will also detect surface radiation, while measuring weather conditions and subsurface hydrogen levels (which could indicate the presence of water).
There is also a laser (!) that can zap rocks from up to nine meters (30 feet) away and then examine the vapor to identify the excited atoms. (Zapping can do that to an atom.)
APXS will gather data day and night. While a quick look at a sample would produce results in only about 10 minutes, a full analysis will take two-to-three hours, according to CSA. If everything goes according to plan, the rover will explore and transmit information back to Earth for a full Martian year — or about 23 Earth months.
By that time, with any luck, Canada and the rest of the Earth will be closer to answering yet another basic question: Is there (or has there ever been) life out there?
You have to ask. That’s Curiosity.
AJ Plunkett is a freelance writer in Virginia with experience in covering defense and aerospace industries as well as the military. AJ blogs via Contently.com.