Mars Curiosity (Sample Lesson)
You’ve landed on Mars, alongside NASA’s amazing car-sized Curiosity rover! Mars is the fourth planet from our Sun, after Mercury, Venus and Earth. It orbits the Sun once every 687 Earth days, making its year nearly twice as long as ours, but its day length (the amount of time it takes to complete one rotation) is very similar to our planet, at 24.6 hours. Mars also has a tilt, just like Earth – so it does have seasons (although they are longer than ours because of its long orbit time).
Mars might be our nearest planetary neighbour, but it’s still a very, very long way away, and no humans have ever visited it. Instead, scientists have used spacecraft to send rovers like this one. A rover is a specially-designed vehicle, filled with scientific instruments – basically, a big science robot!
Have a look around NASA's 'Mars Yard' where they test their equipment
⚠ MISSION OBJECTIVE
Your mission today is to explore the surface of Mars and discover how scientists use robots to uncover the red planet’s secrets. You have three phases to complete:
- How Did Curiosity Get to Mars?
- What Is Curiosity Doing?
- How Does Curiosity Keep Going?
Curiosity launched from Cape Canaveral on November 26 2011 as part of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, aboard an Atlas V rocket.
The spacecraft containing the rover separated from the rocket and was pushed out of Earth orbit to begin a 567-million-kilometer journey to the red planet. It landed on Mars on August 5 2012, using a sky crane touchdown system. First, small rockets controlled the spacecraft as it descended through the planet’s atmosphere, then a parachute slowed its fall, before the rover itself separated from the sky crane, which lowered Curiosity gently onto the surface of Mars, wheels down and ready to begin its work!
Curiosity landed on an area of Mars known as Gale Crater, at the foot of a layered mountain. This crater formed when a meteor hit Mars around 3.5 billion years ago. It was chosen as the landing site because there were clues suggesting it might have been the location of water at some point in its history.
Walk around on the surface of Mars and take a look at the terrain. Think about how accurate the landing must have been to ensure that Curiosity stayed safe and upright; there are many rocks and dips in the landscape.
Watch the rover as it rolls over a rock and look at how the wheels and jointed structure keep it stable.
Curiosity is trying to answer this question:
Did Mars ever have the right environmental conditions to support small life forms called microbes?
That’s exactly why Gale Crater’s evidence of past water was so critical; on Earth, life needs water, so it makes sense to being looking for it here.
Curiosity is collecting vast quantities of data to help scientists find out more about Mars. Every piece of space on the rover has been designed to maximise this data collection:
Find out more about just a few of these instruments and parts:
Curiosity has been on Mars now for many years, and has already sent back a great deal of data from its instruments. Here are some of the key findings:
Water: Curiosity found evidence of a fast-flowing stream of water on Mars in the past.
Once Friendly to Life: analysis of rock samples suggests Mars could once have been an ideal place for microbes to live.
Changes to Mars: evidence shows that Mars used to have a thicker atmosphere and more water on the planet.
Radiation: measurements show that radiation levels on Mars would be dangerous for humans. If we send people there in the future, they will need to be well-protected.
The rover has sturdy, wide wheels to help it navigate Mars’ rocky surface – but how is it powered? And where does the electricity come from to run the many instruments, or send data back to Earth?
- See if you can spot how Curiosity generates power.
- Does it have solar panels?
- Think about what other energy sources it might have access to, way out there in the solar system.
What did you see? Out there in space the rover doesn’t have access to a power station to recharge its batteries, and there aren’t any solar panels on its back.
Amazingly, Curiosity uses nuclear power! Its power source is something called a radioisotope system: the radioactive decay of plutonium generates heat, which is converted into electricity. This technology has been used by NASA for a long time, on other space missions. The plutonium on board Curiosity will provide power for 15 Earth years – plenty of time for it to carry out its objectives.
All images in public domain – thanks NASA!