published on 11 March 2013 in space
Curiosity’s recent discoveries
New information from the Red Planet
A few months after the start of its mission on Mars, NASA’s Curiosity rover has begun its active exploration phase on Martian soil. Announcements of interesting discoveries arrived immediately, some of which still need further studies in order to be confirmed.
In December 2012, the rover detected some simple organic molecules (hydrocarbons). It is unclear if these molecules originated from the Earth, or if they exclusively contain elements found on Martian soil. If confirmed, this discovery will not automatically imply the presence of life on the Red Planet, but it will be a confirmation of the presence of life in the past when heat and relative humidity on the planet were greater.
On 30 January 2013, the rover took a photograph which turned out to be very interesting. The image that was taken by Curiosity showed the presence of a small protrusion with a metallic appearance.
The albedo of this strange protruding object is high, in other words it reflects a large amount of light. The possibility that it is an optical illusion due to the light or the resolution of the video cameras has been denied by the fact that the object casts a shadow on the ground. It is therefore a real object. There are various hypotheses regarding the nature of this object; it could be made of ferrous material that is resistant to erosion. In fact it is a smooth object with no dust on it as would be expected in case of a metal surface.
Real news was received on Saturday 9 February 2013, when the robot took a sample of Martian rock using the drill, one of the set of numerous scientific instruments, for the first time.
In fact Curiosity is equipped with ten sophisticated instruments that are able to observe, photograph and analyze every detail of the Red Planet’s surface.
The American Space Agency divulged the first images of the hole made with the drill on Martian soil, a hole that was subsequently christened “John Klein” in honour of a NASA colleague who died in 2011. The hole’s diameter is 1.6 centimetres and it is 6.4 centimetres deep.
John Grunsfeld, NASA associate administrator, said, “This is the biggest milestone accomplishment for the Curiosity team since the sky-crane landing last August, another proud day for America”. Drilling a hole may seem a simple routine activity on the Earth, but to drill a hole on Marian soil has required a long preparation: eight test drills were made, and more than 1200 holes were drilled in 20 different types of rock on the Earth.
Researches believe that the rock collected by Curiosity may contain definitive proof that in the remote past there was water on the surface of Mars. Furthermore, the satellites orbiting around the planet have shown the presence of clay and sulphates, materials that form typically in the presence of water, in the Gale crater (the rover’s landing site).
In the next few days, Curiosity will start analyzing the chemical composition of the rock powder that was produced when drilling. The rover is equipped with a device for analyzing the samples. The powder will be shaken once or twice over a sieve that screens out particles whose diameter is larger than 150 microns (10-6 m).
More specifically the chemical analysis of the rock samples will provide information about the humidity that was present in the past on the surface of the Red Planet. Indirectly a confirmation of the presence of water on Martian soil would also support the theory according to which forms of life may have been present on Mars in the past. The Curiosity mission is a key point in the exploration of the Red Planet, and one of the steps of the schedule that, as announced by the President Barack Obama, shall send humans to Mars in 2030.
It was 1969 when the first man stepped on the surface of the Moon. After over 70 years, man will again be able to step on the surface of an extra-terrestrial body, and explore it from close, and will once again repeat the famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”!
Edited by Simona Romaniello
Astrophysicist and science populariser, Ms Romaniello is responsible for training and development, and installation of museum exhibits for the Turin Planetarium.