Some stunning images of Curiosity’s search for evidence of life on Mars were sent back to Earth. MSL Curiosity is carrying the workload now after Spirit and Opportunity are gone.
Mars feels like a planet that is dusty, dead, dry, boring. Science, however, says otherwise. Science suggests that with an atmosphere, Mars used to be moist and warm. And science claims for billions of years it has been moist and warm, readily long enough to make life appear and evolve. But we still don’t understand for sure if there was any life there.
In recent years, the scientific research effort to fully understand Mars and its ancient habitability has significantly increased. MSL Curiosity is carrying the workload now after Spirit and Opportunity are gone. (NASA’s InSight lander is also on Mars, but it doesn’t look for life or habitability evidence.)
MSL Curiosity is driving around Gale Crater in search of evidence that life lived their billions of years ago. According to researchers, Gale Crater is a dried-up lake bed, and it is the prime location to look for clear evidence.
Penn State University Professor of Geosciences, Christopher House who is also a scientist is involved with the Mars Science Laboratory mission of NASA. In a Penn State University press release, House spoke about the MSL mission and how it is to be integrated with the ground-breaking mission regularly.
“Gale Crater seems to have been a lake environment,” House said, adding that a lot of finely layered mudstone was discovered in the crater by the mission. For a million years or more the water would have persisted.
Gale Crater has been selected as Curiosity’s target because it’s a complicated location. It was not only a lake bed, meaning some minerals can indicate clues to Martian habitability, but that lake was eventually filled with sediment.
That sediment transformed into a stone that eroded afterwards. That same method is what created Mt. Sharp which is in the centre of Gale Crater, and another object of interest for Curiosity.
“But the entire system, including the groundwater running through it, lasted a lot longer, maybe even a billion years or more,” he said. “Sulfate-filled fractures show that water passed through these rocks much later after the planet was no longer forming lakes.”
House works with teams of sedimentology and stratigraphy at Mars Science Laboratory Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM). To evaluate molecules produced by the heated samples, the SAM team utilizes an instrument that heats rock samples and a mass spectrometer. The molecular mass enables scientists to identify the released gas kinds.
House and other researchers are particularly interested in sulfur gases from sulfate and sulfide minerals because the existence of reduced sulfur minerals such as pyrite, the most prevalent sulfide mineral, would imply that in the past the environment has been able to sustain life. This is partly because the existence of pyrite in sediment requires the organic matter to form.
House serves the sedimentology and stratigraphy team as a leader. As the name suggests, the team is studying rock layers on Mars surface to attempt to comprehend the environment in which they developed. House also participates in the tactical planning of the rover.
House conducts a daily teleconference with scientists around the world a few times a month to plan the operations of Curiosity on Mars for the next day.
“It was fun to be engaged in daily activities, choices such as where to take a measurement, or where to drive, or whether we should prioritize a specific measurement over a distinct measurement considering the restricted quantity of time on the ground,” said House.
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“Every day is restricted by the rover’s power and how much power the rover will need. It was a great learning experience for how missions work and a great opportunity to work with researchers from around the globe.”
Although it appears to move slowly towards us public observers, the pace of daily activities of Curiosity is fast and thorough. We live in a golden age of planetary science, according to House, and it’s both exciting and confusing.
“We wake up to a whole new field of view with different rocks and fresh issues to ask each time we drive,” he said.
“Every time you move, it’s kind of a whole new world, and so often you’re still thinking about the issues that happened months ago, but you’ve got to cope with the reality that there’s a whole new landscape, and you have to do the science of that day as well.”
Mars is a fascinating world for House and one we have learned a lot about already. Mars is still a vibrant location, and in the past, we already know it was probably habitable.
“In the past, missions like this showed habitable environments on Mars,” House said.
“Missions have also shown that Mars continues to be an active world with possibly methane releases and geology, including volcanic eruptions, in the not too distant past. There is certainly excellent interest in Mars as a vibrant terrestrial world that is not so different from our Earth in our solar system as some other worlds.”
While Mars may appear dry, desolate, cold, and lifeless, it is much more Earth-like than other worlds in the Solar System. Venus is a hellhole, Jupiter is a giant, radioactive gas ball, other planets and moons are cold, dead places far away from the Sun’s light.
Curiosity and all the work it does is constantly increasing our scientific knowledge of Mars. The rover identified spikes of methane back in 2014, which is often linked to organic processes. It also discovered organic compounds of carbon in 2014.
The rover also discovered proof of an old stream-bed on Mars in 2013, proving that in the past there was certainly water flowing on the surface.
Since landing on Mars in August 2012, MSL Curiosity continues to be strong. It was targeted at 687 days for the initial length of the mission, but it still goes on after more than 2500 days. MSL has already disclosed a lot about Mars and will continue until the power outage of its thermoelectric radioisotope generator. From its mission, anything else we learn is gravy.