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“Curiosity” Strikes As Rover Lands On Mars

Brian van der Brug-Pool, Getty Images

The Red Planet has a fairly strong reputation when it comes to solar system dynamics. For us, Mars is the fourth planet from the sun, just a little too cold to sustain life, and according to one famous self-help book, the planet men come from.
But, two days ago, the newest Mars rover, Curiosity, landed on the planet’s surface. Jonathan Levine, Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Colgate University, says Curiosity is the best chance we have yet to find signs of life.

“There are two kinds of things that are really important about this mission,” Levine said. “First, is the scientific capabilities that this mission has that are a generation beyond what we’ve been able to put on the surface of Mars before. And second, the landing itself was the most incredible, audacious maneuver that I’ve ever seen attempted on any planet in our solar system.”

According to PopPhoto, Curiosity comes equipped with two cameras, one with a 34mm f/8 lens and another with a 100mm f/10 lens. When used together the two cams are capable of creating 3D images. The rover can also take 720p video and create 360-degree panoramas.

Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems via Getty Images

So what does this mean for us back here on Earth?

“The one thing that’s really new about this mission is there are a lot of instrumental capabilities that are available to us, because this space craft has so much more power than the famous Spirit and Opportunity rovers that have been on Mars,” Levine said. “Part of that power is made possible because there’s actually a Plutonium reactor in the space craft that provides its electricity.”

Where the older Spirit and Opportunity rovers were supplied with electricity coming from solar panels (which were highly susceptible to dust storms and winters without much sunlight), a plutonium reactor provides both heat and power to control some of the nearly one-ton Curiosity’s extremely cool parts and pieces. The only issue comes from its perceived lack of time. Several studies have mentioned that our newest rover may be able to last between two and three years on its nuclear power.

But, in the mean time, that increased and constant supply of power will sustain some heavy-duty equipment.

Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech via Getty Images

“The Curiosity has a laser instrument on board,” Levine said. “Lasers are incredibly power hungry instruments, and the fact that we can now put a working laser on Mars is really incredible.”

As the rover makes it way towards Mount Sharp, where it will begin searching for anything conducive to life, including carbon. To Levine, the discovery of any kind of life would be an extraordinary achievement and well worth the mission’s $2.5 billion dollar price tag.

“Even finding one single-celled organism would, if it was really native to Mars, as opposed to flying over on the space craft, would be a real watershed moment in the history of science and the history of how humanity here on Earth views itself and its place in the universe,” Levine said.

As the full color photos begin to stream in from Curiosity, scientists will pore over the photos and look for anything that says to us that we may not have been alone. Until then, the nation and the rest of the world is collectively holding its breath for a breakthrough.

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