- What is the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL)?
- The largest, most sophisticated robotic mission ever to be sent to another planet.
- What is Curiosity?
- Curiosity is the name of the actual MSL rover. This name was chosen in a student naming contest that NASA conducted. Clara Ma, a 6th grader from Kansas, suggested the winning name “Curiosity.”
- What are the goals of this mission?
- The primary mission of MSL is to look for indicators that Mars may have sustained (or still does sustain) life. The rover will be looking for preserved clues of this microbiological data in rocks.
- Where will it land?
- MSL will land at the foot of a mountain of sedimentary strata (or layers) within a large crater called Gale Crater, which is just south of the Martian equator (4.5 degrees south latitude and 137.4 degrees east longitude).
- How large is the landing site on Mars?
- The landing site 20 by 7 kilometers (13 by 4.5 miles), which is a much smaller landing ellipse than what was needed to land the rovers Spirit and Opportunity in 2004.
• A landing ellipse = the area on Mars in which the spacecraft is likely to land.
• Phoenix landing ellipse: 100 by 17 km
• MER landing ellipse: 83 by 10 km
• Pathfinder landing ellipse: 200 by 70 km
- Why are we so interested in Mars?
- Just like human “twin studies” give us powerful predictive information about medicine and genetics, Earth’s twin Mars gives us powerful predictive information about the future health of our planet. Mars is also the closest planet to our own that in the past (or present) might have been able to sustain life. It may also be able to sustain human explorers and settlers.
- Why did NASA/JPL select the sky crane landing system? Isn’t it too complicated?
- MSL is about the size of a full size SUV and far too big to be folded into the landingbox and then bounce down with airbags (as was done with the previous two rovers and with Pathfinder before them). Based on established retrorocket technology, the sky crane landing system is capable of landing the rover in a much more precise location than airbags.
- Why is the water on Mars important?
- Mars was warm and wet for a very long time. It’s still wet in places. If life ever existed there, it may still be there. On Earth, everywhere that we find water, we find life. Is this also the case on Mars? On the other hand, if life never arose there, despite Earth-like conditions, it tells us how very rare life really is. The existence of water will also make it a lot easier for human explorers to survive on that planet.
- Is MSL looking for life on Mars?
- While MSL is not designed to confirm life on Mars (unless it was able to take an image of a Martian life-form), one of its main goals is to search for signs of life.
- Why would finding life on Mars be important?
- Finding life on another planet would answer one of the most fundamental questions ever posed by science, religion, and philosophy – “are we alone in the Cosmos?” Mars is the best and closest test bed for answering that question.
- Will there be followup NASA missions in the next few years? What missions do we want to do?
- NASA currently is planning to launch the MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) mission in 2013 to explore the planet’s upper atmosphere, ionosphere and interactions with the sun and solar wind to examine the loss of volatile compounds, such as CO2, N2, and H2O, from the Mars atmosphere to space has played over time, giving insight into the history of Mars atmosphere and climate, liquid water, and planetary habitability.
NASA has nothing officially planned after that. NASA originally was going to collaborate on the ESA ExoMars missions in 2016 and 2018, but was forced to back out as a result funding cuts in the NASA Mars budget and other reasons. A successful MSL can serve as a tremendous vehicle to build grassroots and political support for new Mars missions, including a Mars Sample Return mission within the next decade and a human mission to Mars by 2030.
- How can this mission help to advance a human mission to Mars?
- The success of the first human exploration of Mars will be significantly enhanced by the kinds of information MSL will provide – the more thorough that information is, the more likely we will succeed.
A successful MSL mission could also provide the excitement and political momentum that might enable a human mission to Mars. Plus MSL is going to gather information on the radiation levels from cosmic rays and the sun – using the onboard Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) – intended to assess astronaut safety on eventual human missions to Mars
- If we decide to send humans to Mars, will the US go it alone or will it be an international mission?
- We don’t know the answer to this question. However, there are extremely strong arguments that can be made in favor of an international mission. In this environment of reduced government budgets all over the world, an international mission would help spread the cost of the mission over many nations – rather than one nation paying for the entire mission.
There is precedence for this. The International Space Station partnership has survived budgetary, political, and technical challenges for more than a decade. Because ISS was based on international agreements and treaties, it was able to survive these challenges. If ISS had remained solely a US project, it probably would have been canceled years ago.
- Will China beat the US to Mars?
- The United States is still the country that is most capable of mounting the first human mission to Mars. However, if we remain stagnant – unable to decide what the long-term goals of the space program are, there is no question that China could land on Mars before us. It is like the fable of the tortoise and the hare. The US may have the capacity to get there first, but if we sleep under the proverbial tree for too long, China will pass us by. The US doesn’t have to do this alone, however. Another way to manage the financial burden is to conduct a multi-national mission.
*With the recent success of SpaceX, do you think the private sector will go to Mars? * A well thought out mission to Mars is not as expensive as some would suggest, but it is likely to be more expensive than could be managed by a private concern. However, companies like SpaceX may well play key roles in (and enabling) future Mars exploration. It should also be noted that it is unlikely that a profit-oriented business model is to be found anytime soon. If a mission is achieved through private funds (and there are people in the United States and elsewhere who could afford it), it will likely be based on passion and the desire to explore, rather than profit.
- Why should we send humans, can’t robots do a better job and for less money?
- Have you ever been served a drink by a robot? It’s not that difficult to serve a drink, right? Actually, it is. We don’t have robots that can do it. The same goes for real time science on a planet. According to many of the scientists who worked on the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, human astronauts could have achieved the same level of science within two weeks that the rovers accomplished in eight years.
*Why should we spend money on Mars exploration when budgets are so tight and people are suffering?*
Why should we do any science that is not immediately and obviously beneficial to humans — because we never know what will be beneficial to humans at large and experience tells us that exploration reaps gigantic benefits. The Moon landings of then1960s and 1970s served as an enormous catalyst for technology development and inspiration that positively impacted our economy to this moment. A human mission to Mars would probably have an even greater impact.
- Do we have the technology of sending humans to Mars?
- While we will need to develop a variety of new hardware and capabilities, we do possess the knowledge to go to Mars. There are numerous mission architecture plans in existence that could land humans on Mars within the next 1–2 decades.
- What are the biggest challenges of sending humans to Mars?
- Political will. While there are many technical and physical challenges, the biggest obstacle comes from our elected officials. Without strong, longtime support from Congress and the President (and international governments), it will be far more difficult (or impossible) to mount a human mission to Mars. Once we have that long-term support, we could land humans on Mars by 2030 if we decided to do so. Grassroots support can alter the political landscape.