The 10 Coolest Things About The Mars Rover “Curiosity”
By on November 23rd, 2011

The new Mars Rover, Curiosity, is the most high-tech way to explore Mars. The most technologically sophisticated spacecraft ever designed to land on an alien world is due to launch on Saturday, 26th November. We take a closer look at the Wall-E-like spacecraft and pick out the 10 coolest things about the rover.

The Curiosity Rover still at the JPL. Photo taken last year. Photo Courtesy: JPL/NASA

1. Magnifying Glass? All the better to see you with, dear

The Curiosity Rover will carry a high-power magnifying lens, only more sophisticated and maneuverable than the ordinary ones. It’s called Mars Hand Lens Imager or MAHLI. It will be loaded at the end of the Robotic Arm of the rover (see below) and be able to see objects as tiny as 12.5 micrometers (a hair’s width) in size! It’s like having a portable microscope to look at rock samples with the facility of being able to point it anywhere.

2. Plutonium Juice!

The rover will run on Plutonium power. The plutonium used will be the non-weapons grade and will be used for heating a rod of Lead Telluride. Lead Telluride is a thermoelectric material and generates electricity if there is a temperature gradient. The plutonium battery’ doesn’t depend on the external condition, like temperature, so even if the outside is a frigid -840C, it doesn’t matter. You need not worry about the battery freezing or draining out too fast. The juice will last for 23 months, which is longer than the period of the mission. The 10 pound battery is located at the rear end of the rover and will produce 110W of power. We’ve managed to put nuclear power on the Red Planet; surely, that’s an achievement.

Graphic showing the different parts of the Mars Rover. (Courtesy: JPL/NASA and Space.com)

3. Robotic Arm

This is one of the coolest things about the Mars Rover. The rover is fitted with a 7-foot robotic arm, which is quite maneuverable. On the end of the robotic arm sits MAHLI. It also includes the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS).

4. Analysis on Mars The Sample Analyser at Mars (SAM)

For scientists, just looking at a material means nothing they need to know what it is made up of. The Sample Analyser at Mars (SAM) is just the tool to do the job. It’s also the Hulk of all the modules there, weighing at a hefty 38 kg, about half the weight of all the instruments onboard Curiosity. SAM will look at the rocks in three different ways, thanks to the three instruments that it carries a mass spectrometer, a laser spectrometer and a gas chromatograph. It will thus give all relevant data, like density and chemical composition. SAM will also drill for rock samples from deep inside the Martian surface and this has got everyone excited!

5. Capturing some scenes with the MastCam

Curiosity is expected to send us some pictures of the Martian surface to drool over and the MastCam is the instrument for the job. The name suggests that a camera is mounted on an adjustable mast and, no surprise, that is exactly what it is. The MastCam is also responsible for being the eyes of the rover, allowing Earth-based controllers drive the machine on the alien surface.

6. Landing into the Grand Canyon… err, the Gale Crater

The very landing spot is one of the coolest things about the mission. The Gale Crater is a stable formation that is pretty old. The whole region is housed in sedimentary rock and thus, on analyzing the rocks of the Gale Crater, Curiosity can actually go back in time and inspect the history of Mars, much like paleontologists do in the Grand Canyon. We do not know whether there are striations in the Gale Crater, but analyzing old Martian rocks is quite a rush in itself!

A topographical false color map of Mars, showing the location of the Gale Crater. Blue represents low areas and red represents areas higher in altitude.

7. Quantifying Mineral Content the ChemMin

ChemMin – the name is obviously from Chemistry and Mineralogy and that is exactly what this sophisticated piece of machinery will do. It will take the rock samples, some drilled from underneath the surface, and analyse them using an X-Ray beam. Crystals in the rocks diffract X-Rays in certain ways, and this will be used to identify the structure of the crystals. The structure can then be compared with a database and the exact crystal pinpointed. (Note that this is a standard procedure used for crystal structure analysis, using X-Ray diffraction). The ChemMin will be fed samples by the robotic arm.

8. Burning through rocks in the name of science ChemCam

This Bond-styled instrument is designed to fire an intense laser beam at Martian rocks and vaporize them, while analyzing the vapors for composition. The reach of the ChemCam is about 9 meters and is designed to extend the reach of the rover beyond the physical length of the robotic arm. The remote analysis of vapors will take place by analyzing the spectra of light emitted by the excited particles present in the rock vapors. These will be picked up by high-quality optical fibres and spectrographs will identify the elements in the rocks and even get the relative abundances.

An artist's impression of the ChemCam at work.

This is somewhat of a role reversal to think of it. We’ve always imagined Martians landing on Earth shooting laser beams from large wheeled machines of theirs, haven’t we?

9. Searching for Water – using Neutrons

One of the main aims of the mission is to see if the surface of Mars is conducive for life or not. The critical necessity may be the presence of water. The presence of water, even underground and mixed with clay, can be detected using the Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons or DAN. The ultra-cool device will shoot neutrons at various energies into rock samples and see how they reflect. The energy spectrum of the reflected neutrons, compared to that of the incident neutrons tells us whether there is water or not. Neutrons tend to reflect off (or scatter) from nuclei and this can give us a signature of water or ice.

10. Finally, whether we can settle or not!

The Radiation Assessment Detector, or RAD, will give us information regarding the possibility of us going to Mars on a future manned mission or even a settlement. It measures the radiation in different parts of the Martian surface and identifies areas, having low levels of radiation. This is the first step to identifying future landing spots and also of the possibility of microbial life-forms.

 

So, there it is! A compilation of 10 things about the Mars rover that we found really cool! The list is not given in any particular order; you’re invited to have your own pick!

We’ve said this before, but we’ll say it again: Good Luck, NASA.

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Author: Debjyoti Bardhan Google Profile for Debjyoti Bardhan
Is a science geek, currently pursuing some sort of a degree (called a PhD) in Physics at TIFR, Mumbai. An enthusiastic but useless amateur photographer, his most favourite activity is simply lazing around. He is interested in all things interesting and scientific.

Debjyoti Bardhan has written and can be contacted at debjyoti@techie-buzz.com.
 
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