Red Planet, White Rock, Deep Meaning

NASA’s Curiosity rover has once again excited scientists with some provocative discoveries about Mars.

Curiosity drove over a Martian rock and broke it open, exposing a dazzling white exterior.  The striking ivory color indicates the presence of hydrated minerals in the rock.  As any person who walks around with a water bottle knows, “hydration” requires water, and hydrated minerals are those that are formed when water is found.  Curiosity also has detected clay-type minerals in a different rock — another clue suggesting the presence of water at some point.  These discoveries are part of a growing body of evidence that running water once existed on this part of the surface of Mars.

On Earth, water seems to have been a crucial building block in whatever process, or outside force, first created life.  If water flowed on the Red Planet, the odds are increased that life once existed there — and may exist there still.  Although the surface of Mars is now a dusty red desert, it is possible that water and ice remain in rock formations deep below the Martian surface.  If so, life may be found there, because studies on Earth indicate that life, once established, is remarkably hardy.  The expedition to drill into a lake buried beneath a two-mile thick sheet of ice in Antartica, for example, recently uncovered life forms even in that dark, desolate, and inhospitable location.  Why should life on Mars be any less tenacious?

I’m of the Star Trek generation.  I believe that looking for — and especially finding — life beyond the confines of our home planet is a good way to get squabbling humans to recognize that their differences are minor and not worthy of much attention in the grand scheme of things.  We need to move beyond a mindset that focuses exclusively on our own fleeting creature comforts and recognize that we live in but one tiny, wayward corner of an unimaginably vast universe.  It’s been 40 years since humans walked on the Moon.  When will we take the next step, to Mars and beyond, to see whether life in fact may be found elsewhere?

Curiosity, On The (Martian) Ground

NASA announced today that the Martian rover, Curiosity, has successfully landed on the Red Planet.  In an amazing display of engineering, Curiosity roared through the Martian atmosphere, undertook a series of maneuvers to slow itself down, and then landed safely in the Gale Crater, near Mars’ equator.

The rover’s touchdown on Mars is just another triumph for America’s unmanned space program.  We have probes, satellites, robots, and landers operating all across the solar system — and for the first time in human history just outside of it, too.

Curiosity‘s mission will be a long, and interesting, one that will last for at least two years.  The rover is the largest device NASA has yet landed on Mars and is powered with a long-lasting plutonium battery.  It will navigate the Martian surface, scan the Martian soil for signs of water, climb a Martian mountain, and collect samples to test for organic compounds, and pulverize rocks with a laser.  And, because this is the social media age, Curiosity of course has its own Twitter feed.  The rover therefore also has made history by sending the first Tweet from the surface of Mars.  It said: “I’m safely on the surface of Mars. GALE CRATER I AM IN YOU!!!”


We Earthlings have always been curious about our neighbor, Mars.  It’s appropriate, therefore, that the latest robot sent to explore the Red Planet is called Curiosity.

Curiosity, which blasted off from Cape Canaveral yesterday, is the largest, best-equipped robot ever to be sent to another planet.  Its mission will feature a number of significant advances in space exploration technology, including new systems that will allow the Curiosity to parachute to the Martian surface and land with great precision.  And the robot rover itself is exceptionally cool.  It is huge by rover standards, and it basically is a geological laboratory on wheels that will be able to photograph, laser, sift and test the Martian surface.  It also has a fully functioning weather station that will record temperature, wind, and humidity.  (Watch for apps that will let you get the daily Martian forecast!)

It will take Curiosity months to get to Mars.  After it lands, it will spend two full years rolling around the Martian surface, attempting to answer questions about whether Mars has been, or is now, capable of sustaining basic life forms.

As an American, I’m always proud of our NASA space exploration missions and the ground-breaking (literally, in the case of Curiosity) technological advances that they feature.  It’s nice to know that our engineering and space exploration systems work, even if our political systems don’t.