Mars appears to be our twin in some ways—it is rocky, nearby, and of similar size. But after many a hopeful prodding, Mars remains a dead body. The rover Curiosity made a happy discovery last month, photographing river rocks in an ancient Martian streambed. This led Claire L. Evans to straighten out the legendary “canals” of Mars, popularized by astronomers such as Percival Lowell in the nineteenth century. Lowell’s carefully mapped waterways were much nearer than he thought—likely “projections of the vein structure of his own eyeball, a known nuisance among planetary observers using very high magnification.” No stranger to canals himself, Greg Laden writes “early research on Mars also suggested the possibility of ancient free water on the planet, and eventually, these suggestions panned out.” With a history of flowing water, could life on Mars have been far behind? Curiosity may soon have the answer.
Despite NASA’s teasing prospect of a crash landing, the Curiosity rover touched down on Mars without a hitch. It is the biggest, most expensive, and best-equipped scientific instrument to ever reach the Red Planet. On Thoughts from Kansas, Josh Rosenau writes:
With its plutonium-fueled power plant, its robotic arms, and its rock-destroying lasers, Curiosity’s goal is to survey Mars and dig into the planet’s past. It will track the geology of the planet in greater detail than any previous rover or lander has done. It will take pictures with higher resolution and greater sensitivity than any previous mission to Mars. It will monitor radiation and the environment around it, getting us closer to a sense of what it would be like to stand on Mars.
Curiosity carries 72 kilos of scientific apparatus (compared to its predecessors’ 5.5). Ethan Siegel says that Curiosity “may wind up teaching us more about Mars’ geologic and atmospheric history than all other prior missions combined.” NASA’s older rover, Opportunity, continues to explore the Martian surface, but its sibling Spirit bit the dust in 2011. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter also photographed Curiosity as it parachuted toward the ground.
Ultimately, Curiosity may say whether life once existed, still exists, or will exist on Mars.
Ethan Siegel says the mechanics of the Curiosity landing have already proved we could put humans on Mars. And PZ Myers nominates the first pioneers. On Universe, Claire L. Evans writes “I find it profoundly moving, not only because something inconceivable has been accomplished, but because we can look at Curiosity’s shadow and understand, without hesitation, that it’s our own.” Curiosity is a vanguard, gone to Mars in our place. It is more sensitive, less forgetful, alone and anaerobic, but still human.