In yet another giant metaphorical leap for all of humankind, scientists landed the Mars science rover Curiosity in the Gale Crate early Monday morning. Since then, there have been a lot of science terms and fuzzy, black-and-white Martian photos floating around the Internet.
Here to clear away some of the space dust for our not-so-science-based minds -- and explain just what they're hoping to find up there -- is Mike Veto, a graduate research assistant at the ASU Mars Space Flight Facility.
Behar, an engineer, worked on the design of the spacecraft, while the other three scientists designed instruments for the rover and help interpret the data collected during the mission. They, along with everyone working to keep MSL in working order, will spend the next few weeks living "on Mars time" while they keep things running from the Jet Propulsion Lab in California.
We sat down with Veto to find out why we should be more than curious about Curiosity. Here are five reasons scientists are excited about landing the Curiosity rover on the red planet:
After nearly eight months of travel through space, Curiosity and the scientists behind it faced seven minutes of nail-biting anxiety while the rover carefully placed it six wheels on the surface of the planet. After traveling at 13,000 miles per hour from Earth to Mars, Veto compares slowing to a dead halt in just seven minutes to completely stopping your car on the highway in about two seconds. Not so easy. Impossible in fact.
To make things even more complicated, scientists needed two other orbiting spacecrafts in the correct positions in order to land the rover. Veto compared the feat to coordinating the flight paths of three bullets.
"If you're flying that fast and you miss it by a second, it doesn't work," Veto says. "And if you think of the things we use everyday, none of them work 100 percent of the time. But you can't have any of that with a rover."
4. The possibility of life - past or present
No, they don't mean little green men (We're sure. We asked.) But according to Veto, what they do think could exist on Mars are the elements essential to supporting life. Using the rover, they'll be able to examine the isotopes, or slight variants of an element, present on Mars. Certain isotopes could indicate the possibility of life. By studying the mineralogy of the planet scientists hope to understand what kind of environment existed in the past, and whether or not it could have supported life.
At the most Veto says they could find microbes, tiny organisms like bacteria. Scientists have found microbes that survive in extreme conditions here on Earth, so the possibility of living organisms on Mars doesn't seem completely farfetched. What's more, they could find a form of life completely alien to us because it evolved in such a separate manner on a different planet.
3. Solving the Methane Mystery
Several research groups over the past six years have reported finding methane in the atmosphere on Mars. In Earth, about 98 percent of the atmospheric methane comes from biological sources such as humans and cows.
"To put it humorously," Veto says, "The estimation is there are two cows on Mars gauging by the methane production."
Because methane has a short half-life (breaks down quickly once released into the air), scientists want to find the source of the gas on the planet. Even if the methane on Mars comes from a non-biological source, the presence of the gas indicates the planet is definitely still alive -- at least in a geological sense.
2. The Gale Crater: an anomaly
Veto remembers during his first class at Arizona State, when scientists were still debating the ideal landing spot for the Curiosity rover. He says, they probably chose the Gale Crater because of its uniqueness within the geological context of the planet. In the center of the crater sits a large mound, known as Mount Sharp. The mountain rises about three miles from the surface and is taller than one of the sides of the crater it sits in.
Using data gathered from orbiting spacecraft, they have already determined many different minerals comprise the layers of Mount Sharp. Scientists hope to use the types of minerals as a "history book" of the Martian climate in the past. Veto says some hypothesize that the uppermost layers could be made up of snow pack or dust. Like Earth, the planet Mars goes through ice ages and he says our ancestors could have looked up to see a white planet, instead of the red planet we know today.
But why do scientists care about ice ages on Mars? Veto says a better understanding of climate cycles on Mars, a planet untouched by humans, could help us understand and measure the effects we've had on our own planet.
1. Paving the Way for the Future
As Veto explains, the process of exploring an extraterrestrial body follows this pattern: we look at it with telescopes, we fly past it, we land on it, we use rovers to explore it, we complete a sample return and then finally, we land on it. MSL is an important step forward in the process. But don't hold your breath for man to take his first steps on Mars anytime soon; by Veto's best estimate, the soonest we could be sending a human to the red planet would be in two to three decades.
Simply by landing successfully on the planet, Curiosity demonstrated the ability to execute a high precision landing even with a "very large spacecraft." Curiosity has often been described as about the size of a VW Beetle. Of course, in the grand scheme of objects on Earth, that's not so large. But to put things in perspective, according to NASA fact sheets, Curiosity is about five times as heavy and twice as long as the Mars exploration rovers, Spirit and Opportunity.
"Pathfinder was about the size of a microwave and Spirit and opportunity were like golf carts," Veto says. "For planetary exploration, MSL is like a tank."