The robot on Mars with one arm, six wheels and its head atop a mast has caught the world's attention.
The boldest mission to Mars that Earthlings have ever undertaken. The Mars rover Curiosity is a self propelled, semi-autonomous robot the size of a small car. It is powered by a compact self contained nuclear power plant. It is armed with a laser capable of delivering a million watts of power in five billionths of a second. When compared to previous Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, it makes them look like radio controlled toys sent into space for entertainment.
Curiosity is a much more capable machine than any before, with enough eyes to make a spider jealous. Six pair of monochrome cameras capable of 3D imagery for navigation and hazard avoidance. The mast camera with color, 3D, zoom and color video. The ChemCam, a spectrometer that can analyze over 6000 wavelengths of light, used in conjunction with the laser to determine mineral composition. The Mars Hand Lens Imager capable of resolving features smaller than the diameter of an Earthling's hair. And the Mars Descent Imager used during the landing.
Curiosity has two radiation detectors, one to measure several forms of radiation in preparation of manned missions to Mars and the other to detect the presence of water up to 2 meters below the surface. The Spanish government provided a meteorological system to monitor the martian weather.
The previous rovers, spirit and opportunity, were solar powered, and like a terrestrial lizard they had to wait for the sun to rise on Mars before becoming active. Curiosity is warm blooded, with a plutonium power plant that runs non-stop and a circulatory system that moves heat from the power plant to other systems, keeping them warm during the cold dark martian nights.
Along with all the high tech equipment Curiosity has on board, it has a sundial, an ancient instrument for determine time of day and seasons on Mars. The sundial is inscribed with “TO MARS TO EXPLORE” and the word Mars in 16 Earth languages. It also carries the inscription, “ For millennia, Mars has stimulated our imaginations. First, we saw Mars as a wandering star, a bringer of war from the abode of the gods. In recent centuries, the planet’s changing appearance in telescopes caused us to think that Mars had a climate like the Earth’s. Our first space age views revealed only a cratered, Moon-like world, but later missions showed that Mars once had abundant liquid water. Through it all, we have wondered: Has there been life on Mars? To those taking the next steps to find out, we wish a safe journey and the joy of discovery”
The mission statement for the Mars Science Laboratory, aka Curiosity rover, is “To search areas of Mars for past or present conditions favorable for life, and conditions capable of preserving a record of life.” SAM the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument suite comprises half the science payload on board and will search for carbon compounds, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, the chemicals associated with life.
The universe is a big place and there is probably extraterrestrial life somewhere out there. But until life is found other than on the Earth, all the known evidence points to Earth life as the only life in existence anywhere.
NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratories have done an exemplary job of promoting the mission with their website, a Times Square landing countdown, multitudes of press releases and a twitter feed, @MarsCuriosity, that has over a million followers and has managed to personify the robot.
For the trivia fans, Curiosity carries a 1909 VDB Lincoln penny, a silicon chip engraved with 1.24 million names collected from online submission and another 20,000 from visitors to the Jet Propulsion Laboratories. The tracks from the rover's wheels spell out JPL in Morse code.