When Curiosity landed on Mars many of us were looking at images of another planet on our personal computers or even from our mobile phones. Did you hear the sound of the ghosts of a thousand science fiction writers leap into the air and yell BOO-YAH?
It’s been a big year for science. In April the dinosaur fossil, Yutyrannus huali, an early relative of fearsome Tyrannosaurus rex, was reported to have feathers. Then more fossils were discovered, which suggested that perhaps all dinosaurs had some downy fuzz on them, firmly placing them in the, well, birdish bracket. Suddenly I understand people who fear birds.
Then there was the last Transit of Venus for this century, which means that anyone born Gen X or earlier won’t be alive to see the next one. Hot on its heels, CERN reported the discovery of a new boson, believed to be the Higgs. Physicists have been searching for this particle, because it would tell them that such a particle gives matter mass. But more importantly, it confirms that physicists have been getting it right all along when it comes working out to the fundamental structure of the universe.
And then we had the landing of the Mars Curiosity Rover, another scientific wonder, maybe the best of them all for this year — so far.
Curiosity is part of the Mars Space Laboratory mission, which was proposed in 2004. It isn’t the first time that NASA has landed a rover on Mars. Previous Mars missions involved orbiting spacecraft that mapped the Martian surface, but also included rovers — landed spacecraft that roamed the surface of the planet.
Missions to Mars are unique in this respect: we have not been able to land a spacecraft and roam the surface of any other planet (save our moon).
Mars exploratory missions, which have come from the former Soviet Union, Japan, the European Space Agency and NASA have been littered with disasters, with an overall success rate of only 60%. Mars is further from the Earth than the Moon, it has an atmosphere and an eccentric orbit, and so requires a whole range of engineering that a mission to the Moon doesn’t. No Mars mission has been engineered to return.
The Mars missions have sought to map the surface of Mars, observe its climate and weather cycles, search for liquid water, study its geological surface and history, analyse Martian soil to determine its composition - and search for signs of life.
Mars figures strongly in the imagination of humankind. Named for the Roman god of war, some of our earliest science fiction stories focused on Mars. Martians were the first extraterrestrials to be named. HG Wells’ War of the Worlds caused mass panic when first played on radio, based on the invasion of an imaginary dominant Martian life form.
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