There on Earth, the Olympians are making history. Here on Mars, the achievement is not only for a group of people but for the whole of humanity. Curiosity has successfully landed on the fourth planet from the Sun and has already beamed back the first picture it took on its surface. Curiosity is a rover, not unlike an SUV, that has been sent to Mars by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to explore this red planet. But unlike an SUV (or any other Earth bound vehicle for that matter) instead of being powered by petrol, it runs on nuclear power. This, in itself, is an engineering feat. Even more astounding than this is the fact that this little space car is packed with the most cutting edge technology and scientific equipment ever used for an exploration on Mars. Needless to say that we have huge expectations from this mission.
How do you get a rover to Mars? It might not seem a difficult task for the NASA folks to do given that they’ve already sent astronauts to the Moon and spurted countless number of satellites into orbit around Earth, not to mention the several critical missions of the now retired Space Shuttle. All in all, NASA has scaled to great heights in terms of scientific and engineering achievement. This most recent mission to Mars is, if you will, the cherry on the massive cake that NASA has concocted over the years. It is a crowing glory for an institution which, to be honest, has not been given enough attention and TLC by the powers that be. Regardless, the success of the Curiosity mission, so far, demands that we pay tribute to the numerous scientists, engineers and technicians who have worked hard to accomplish this tremendous exploit. To appreciate this, let’s put that in perspective.
Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun. It is about 80 million km from Earth. From launch to landing, Curiosity’s journey from Earth to Mars took about 250 days. This might seem like a long time to be on a trip. But if you were to do the same journey on a typical commercial or passenger airplane then it would have taken you a minimum of 3700 days! That’s more than 10 years! From this angle it doesn’t look like Curiosity took a long time to reach Mars. Mars is about half the size of Earth and its mass is about a tenth of that of Earth. The reason we call Mars the red planet is because of the high concentration of iron minerals rusting in its soil. This reddish, rusty hue is reinforced because of the fine dust and particles of soil which remain in suspension in Mars’s atmosphere creating this quasi-permanent red layer around Mars. This also makes visibility of the surface of Mars rather limited. As for the temperature of a typical day on Mars, well, make sure you have enough layers on as the temperature averages a -60 degrees Celsius! The hottest it can ever get is approximately 35 degrees Celsius and the coolest, a chilling -140 Celsius! It is certainly not a destination for a warm vacation. The conditions, therefore, on Mars are far from clement. It is one of the reason why the first few exploration mission on Mars are unmanned. Those machines and robots are much better suited to bear the rough conditions on Mars.
(TO BE CONTINUED)