Curiosity, NASA’s Latest Rover, is Halfway To Mars But It’s U.S. Planetary Science That’s In Danger

Curiosity, the rover housing the Mars Science Laboratory, is halfway to its destination.

The Mars Science Laboratory mission, with a rover affectionately named Curiosity, reached a milestone this past Sunday, April 1, as it hurtled across the halfway point at over 10,000 miles per hour on its 254 day-long journey to the red planet. Scheduled to land on August 6, the rover will spend close to two years analyzing Martian soil around its landing site near the Gale Crater to determine whether conditions are favorable for microbial life to thrive on the planet. But its back on Earth where the real threat to the Mars mission looms as President Obama’s proposed budget includes a 20% reduction in NASA’s funds for planetary science, which eliminates scheduled missions to Mars in 2016 and 2018 and would result in job loss at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), the agency that built and manages the rover for NASA. Sadly, at a time when NASA has come under scrutiny for ambitious projects that have gone way over budget, one of the most successful space campaigns is being hobbled.

Launched in November of 2011, the Curiosity rover is a 10 x 9 x 7 foot (the size of a mini Cooper), one-ton mobile, robotic laboratory capable of traversing across the rocky surface of Mars at a tenth of a mile per day on its plutonium-238 power generator. It has multiple instruments on-board for soil analysis, including a mass spectrometer, X-ray diffraction instrument, radiation detectors, cameras…basically, everything that’s needed to profile the substances in the soil, both inorganic and hopefully organic. The $2.5-billion rover is also equipped with instruments from Spain and Russia to help monitor the atmosphere and detect water under the surface. Altogether, this is a robot aimed not at physical exploration of the planet’s surface, but chemical profiling.

Check out this video to learn more about the Mars Science Laboratory and its mission:

During the 200 million mile journey it has traveled thus far, the mission has had a few tense moments. Even before getting to the launchpad, the program was over budget and delayed. But three days after launch, a computer reset occurred, which initially baffled engineers but was eventually determined to be memory related and fixable. A powerful solar flare ejected material that hit the spacecraft in January, and with the solar cycle nearing the maximum of its 11-year cycle, more storms are expected in the next 4 months or so. But otherwise, everything  is going well, including the first few planned trajectory corrections and the powering up of each of the scientific instruments on-board. In fact, Curiosity has been monitoring radiation levels in order to gauge exposure levels to humans, for future manned missions to Mars.

Here’s an update from NASA on Curiosity and all that is being learned from it on its journey:

Curiosity is the fourth and largest rover to explore the surface of Mars, with the first being the Sojourner rover in 1997 that lasted for 3 months, followed by Spirit and Opportunity in 2004. Spirit operated for five years before getting stuck and eventually stopped sending signals in 2010, yet amazingly Opportunity is still operating after 8 years. These missions have made an incredibly strong case for robots as the future of space exploration, especially when every rover has far exceeded its expected lifetime. It currently unfathomable to imagine the logistics of putting a human being on the surface of even the Moon for 3 months, let alone 8 years. And Curiosity is equipped with everything it will need to conduct experiments day after day for 1 Martian year, or 687 Earth days.

Get a sense of how the rover is going to get the surface and operate on Mars in this video:

Overall, the success of the Mars rover campaign seems like an encore of the Apollo program, but with the added challenge that the destination is 300 times further away from the Earth than the Moon. For a sense of what that means, look to the east in early April when the Sun sets to see Mars clearly as it sits near the star Regulus with the Moon in proximity. Many believe Mars, not the Moon, is the next frontier for building a human colony and that’s why so much is riding on the Curiosity mission.

Yet, it may very well be the last mission to Mars in the foreseeable future.

Between the swollen U.S. debt and the $5 billion over-budget James Webb Space Telescope, something had to give in the form of a $300-million cut to planetary science. Unfortunately, what has been sacrificed are the joint collaboration with the European Space Agency to go to Mars in 2016 and 2018. The success of Curiosity has the potential to sway public interest in Mars exploration, just as all the rovers have, and put pressure on Congress to keep the program funded. But the mission isn’t as glamorous as its predecessors. After all, we saw the surface of Mars with Sojourner for the first time, explored the rocky terrain with Spirit, and experienced the thrill of discovering ice under the soil with Opportunity, so the expectation is that the next mission will confirm that there’s life on Mars. But that’s not what Curiosity is about. It’s objective is to determine whether conditions are favorable for microbial life, which means chemical analysis. The search for life on Mars is closer to an archaeological expedition, and one that rovers aren’t really equipped to undertake just yet.

So the biggest challenge for JPL may not be its scientific capabilities, but its marketing prowess. Can they effectively sell the mission’s findings to the public enough to not just keep everyone interested, but spur great interest in planetary science? If not, the U.S. is likely to take a backseat in space exploration for a long time to come.

[Media: JPL, NASAYouTube]

[Sources: JPL, LA Times, NASASpaceWashington Times]

I've been writing for Singularity Hub since 2011 and have been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. My interests cover digital education, publishing, and media, but I'll always be a chemist at heart.

Follow David: