Today, The New York Times released comprehensive footage (seen below) of NASA’s Curiosity rover, which has spent the last 833 days (Martian time) exploring the red planet. Through the mission, NASA discovered evidence that a warmer, wetter, habitable Mars once existed.
These conclusions came via a probe of the Gale Crater, which engulfs the 5-km high peak of Mount Sharp. In the depths of the crater, the Curiosity rover discovered remains of sediments that were laid down in successive lakes, which dried and refilled many times over the course of tens of millions of years.
The New York Times article goes on to say, “Mount Sharp was probably formed from the slow accumulation of sediment, then sculptured by wind into its current shape.”
These findings indicate that the Martian world was far warmer and wetter during its first 2 billion years of existence than originally thought. In fact, the Curiosity team goes as far as to say that ancient Mars must have experienced a vigorous global hydrological cycle, filled with rains and snows that helped maintain humid conditions.
Does this mean life was once sustainable on the planet?
Well, the article goes on to say, “The water was not too salty or too acidic, and could have supported microbial life.” While there is still quite a bit of time left on the Curiosity mission (it will be climbing Mount Sharp in upcoming months), scientists are pleased with the progress of the project.
Curiosity Prof John Grotzinger says, “There is no way to have recognized this from orbit…All that driving we did really paid off for science. It didn’t just get us to Mount Sharp – it gave us the context to appreciate Mount Sharp.”
As auto enthusiasts, we can all stand to appreciate the kind of technology and machinery that made the Curiosity rover possible. Weighing in at 1,982 pounds, the Curiosity rover was sent slicing through space approximately three years ago.
This trip was, of course, powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), similar to the ones found on previous Mars missions Viking 1 and Viking 2. The current craft operates off of this device for a few reasons.
Resident genius Mason Jiang of Stanford University, says, “The chief usage of RTGs is in fully automated systems that will not experience human contact for periods of time longer than other sources of energy, such as batteries and fuel cells, can sustain and in environmental conditions that are not conducive to generating energy by natural means (solar, wind, etc.).”
This latest RTG used in the Curiosity led mission was built by Boeing and Idaho National Laboratory, and more precisely, is an electrical generator that uses a multitude of thermocouples to convert the heat released by the decay of suitable radioactive material, for example plutonium-238, into electricity by the Seebeck effect (How about we see that kind of technology in today’s electric cars!?! Come on Musk, pull some Space-X strings for us).
Amazingly, this is not exactly new technology, either; the use of more primitive RTGs have been found in satellites, space probes, and unmanned remote facilities throughout our history of space exploration. I’ll let Molly, a real NASA beauty, explain the rest for you… check it out below.