NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), nicknamed Curiosity, is scheduled to touch down on the Red Planet this Sunday, August 5, at 10:30 PM (PDT). Curiosity is the largest of the Mars rovers to date and, as such, will require a series of very complex techniques to see it safely land on the planet’s surface – all in the span of 7 minutes. You can watch”Curiosity’s Seven Minutes of Terror“, for a look at how the landing is to proceed, and follow the NASA countdown here.
While the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) robotic geologists have been making important discoveries on Mars for the last four years, NASA has been planning, designing and building the next generation rover, that will soon join them. Launched in November, 2011, Curiosity is intended to take the next step in investigating the possibility of life on Mars. Beyond looking for evidence of water, MSL will assess the habitability of one, yet-to-be-determined site on the Martian surface. Habitability is the potential of a Martian environment to support life, whether past or present. The geology, chemistry, mineralogy and environmental conditions of a site all influence its habitability. Curiosity, which is roughly the size of a small car and thus is significantly larger than MER (see photo below, showing scaled MSL on the right), carries a sophisticated suite of instruments that will work together to investigate all the factors that influence habitability.
As a Co-Investigator on the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite of instruments, CMS Director Meenakshi Wadhwa is one of the scientists who will guide MSL to interesting targets and interpret data from the mission. SAM is aimed at finding and analyzing elements important to life such as carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen and any organic compounds that contain these elements. SAM’s gas chromatograph will separate any mixture of organic compounds Curiosity finds into individual components for identification, while the SAM mass spectrometer and tunable laser spectrometer will measure the molecular and isotopic composition of rock and atmospheric samples.
Watch more Mars Science Laboratory videos here, and learn more about NASA’s exploration of our Solar System here!