Undoubtedly the biggest and most powerful rover ever sent by humans to the surface of Mars is the aptly called Curiosity rover. The rover’s major goal is to determine whether Mars has ever had the ideal climatic conditions for the emergence of microscopic life. The nearly car-sized rover, which is as tall as a basketball player according to NASA , gathers rock, soil, and air samples with equipment it manipulates using a 7-foot-long robotic arm in order to provide an answer to this issue.

Curiosity’s comparatively big size allows it to transport a variety of cutting-edge equipment for scientific research. There are 17 cameras, a laser it uses to melt tiny samples of rock, and a drill to gather powdered rock among these. These rock samples’ chemical makeup represents a chemical “fingerprint” of Mars’ geological past. Their historical interactions with liquid water are also quite significant and are concealed within rocks.

In addition, Curiosity can detect detecting organic carbon compounds in rock and soil as well as other sophisticated organic compounds that may have been been the basis for life on the Red Planet. The mission of Curiosity was initially only supposed to last two years, but in December 2012, it was given an unlimited extension. It has been doing research on Mars for 3,550 Earth days as of August 1, 2022.

Diagram of Curiosity's descent to the surface of Mars
An image of the Gale Crater taken by the Curiosity rover.

Curiosity was sent to the Gale Crater to conduct scientific research because, even before the rover made a footprint in the 96-mile-wide basin, scientists had a sneaking suspicion that liquid water had once flowed there (via New Scientist ). In the Gale Crater, which is the same size as Connecticut and Rhode Island put together, scientists had discovered clays and sulfate minerals. These are typically water byproducts that can also be used to seal microbial life’s telltale signals.

Between 3.5 and 3.8 billion years ago, when the Red Planet was struck by a meteor, the Gale Crater is thought to have formed. Around the crater’s edge, rocks and earth were dispersed by this impact. Mount Sharp , also known as Aeolis Mons, is located in the heart of the Gale Crater and has geological layering that suggests the existence of surviving fragments from a lengthy sequence of deposits. Mars’ punishing winds may have carved out the mountain’s 3.4-mile height as these materials filled the crater.

As Curiosity has explored the area, it has discovered that the rocks appear to be younger as it ascends Mount Sharp. Given that Mount Sharp was formed from sediments, it is likely that the Gale Crater and other ancient lakes formerly received massive inflows of water over periods of millions or possibly tens of millions of warm Martian years. Mudstone sediment found by Curiosity over the previous ten years appears to have shown that it was originally a lake.

diagram of the Gale Crater
Sunset on Mars as seen by Curiosity

It is quite likely that Mars’ atmosphere, which is now 100 times thinner than Earth’s, played a role in the fate of the planet’s liquid water. Many theories contend that the Red Planet originally possessed a magnetosphere that was comparable to Earth’s in strength. Our planet is effectively shielded from charged solar particles by its magnetic field. Most of them travel along magnetic field lines behind our planet after impacting the magnetosphere of Earth.

By doing this, the atmosphere is shielded from damaging sun radiation. The violently molten core of Earth creates the magnetosphere by violently ripping electrons from atoms. Mars’ molten core cooled more quickly than on Earth because of its smaller size, and its magnetosphere shrank.

This made it possible to remove the Martian atmosphere. The SAM sensor on Curiosity has found evidence that Mars formerly had an atmosphere that was substantially thicker (via NASA). The occurrence of heavier isotopes of elements like hydrogen, carbon, and argon serves as evidence for this. Nothing could stop evaporating water from “leaking” from Mars into space as gas after its atmosphere has been stripped and thinned to that point. Additionally, since water is essential for life, at least according to what we currently understand, Mars’ ability to maintain even a small amount of microbial life also likely vanished with the loss of water.

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Illustration of an astronaut on Mars

NASA and other space organizations are getting ready for the next phase of crewed space exploration, which includes the Artemis mission, which will bring people back to the moon. This will eventually involve using Mars as a stepping stone on the way to Earth’s natural satellite, facilitate a crewed mission . But researchers will need to take the readings from Curiosity’s Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) instrument. into account. Researchers discovered that future Mars explorers will be exposed to two types of radiation that pose potential health risks—one from close to home and the other from further afield—using data gathered by RAD as Curiosity’s craft released the rover into Mars’ atmosphere.

Astronauts will need to be protected from galactic cosmic rays and solar energetic particles (SEPs) produced by solar flares and coronal mass ejections from the sun (GCRs). The latter are particles that high-energy events outside the solar system, such as supernova explosions, send into interstellar space.

On its way to Mars, the Curiosity rover was exposed to an average of 1.8 milliSieverts of GCR every day, according to the data gathered by RAD. This is comparable to a person getting a full-body CT scan every five to six days, according to according to NASA 0. This may exceed the level of radiation exposure that NASA recommends for astronauts during their careers, necessitating additional planning, radiation shielding, and other safety precautions for crewed missions to Mars.

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