The Mars Missions have been driven by the spirit of exploration and the possibility of life on Mars. These explorations are expected to study climate, geology and possibility of life on Mars which in turn may provide data on earth’s past and possible future as well. The strategy of Mar’s explorations is, “Follow the Water”, which involves observing features like dry riverbeds, ice in polar ice caps and studying the minerals that can only be formed in the presence of water. Why water? Because where there is water, there may be possibility of life.
The interplanetary travel seems like the ultimate accomplishment of advances in science and technology. The complexity involved in designing the equipment and material for space travel with zero margin of error makes space missions really challenging with high failure rates. Some such challenges include designing a rover that is adept at the new unknown territories, can maintain its own power source and is “self-sustaining” because the signal from earth takes 14 minutes to reach mars, even when traveling at the speed of light (3.0 X 10^8 m/s).
Curiosity is much heavier and better engineered as compared to earlier rovers like “Spirit” and “Opportunity”. Curiosity is like a “mobile lab” that can analyze mineral samples on the go, millions of miles away. Curiosity uses nuclear power as a power source which is more dependable than solar power. Solar power is unreliable in the space missions due to the settling of dust and the shorter days. Curiosity uses nuclear power generated from MMRTG-an acronym for Multi Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator. This generator uses natural decay of plutonium dioxide to generate power which serves the power needs of Curiosity and the mobile chemistry lab aboard Curiosity.
The main goal of curiosity on Mars is to collect and analyze mineral samples. In addition, Curiosity will try to figure out the “geological fingerprints” of Mars’ history which will help in answering questions such as -when and how long did water exist on Mars, what kind of water was it and could this water and the conditions on Mars have supported a life form?
This analysis of soil and minerals is based upon the concepts of “Analytical Chemistry.” Curiosity has an impressive array of analytical instruments. These include two High Definition cameras for creating 3-D stereoscopic images and four spectrometers. The first spectrometer uses laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy that focuses laser on part of rock. It can find the identity of minerals by studying the emission patterns of light using spectroscopy. Second spectrometer is called “sample analysis at Mars”- GC-MS (Mass Spectroscopy and Gas Chromatography). It includes analyzing gas samples of minerals to look for long chain organic molecules and molecular components. The third spectrometer is called a “tunable laser spectrometer”. It looks for abundances of methane, water and carbon dioxide in the mineral samples. The fourth spectrometer is called “Alpha particle X-ray spectrometer” and is mounted on the end of the robotic arm of Curiosity to figure out the elemental makeup of the minerals.
In addition, Curiosity also has an X-ray diffraction experiment which has X-ray tube. This technique generates X-ray diffraction rings that give insight into the composition of minerals. This is the first time that this study can be done on Mars itself.
With such sophisticated instruments, advances in Science and a little help from Analytical Chemistry, the mystery of Mars maybe solved sooner rather than later. Oh...The wonders of Chemistry!