Nov 05

What’s Up in the Sky

What’s Up in the Sky – November, 2012

Curious About Mars?

“Landing the Mars Science Laboratory Rover was, by any measure, the most challenging mission in the history of robotic planetary exploration”.    That is how one NASA scientist described the Mars “Curiosity” rover’s arrival at the Red Planet, which it is busily exploring.  Are you kidding?!  Go to YouTube and watch some of the videos of this landing (I liked “7 minutes of terror”).  It is unbelievable.  In my humble opinion, this was way more complicated than the 69 Moon landing.

But I’m not here to write about the landing – that’s old news and was well covered at the time (August).  But what about since then?  Haven’t heard many follow-up reports on Curiosity’s activities or discoveries, I bet.  That’s why you read this column.

The set of scientific instruments on board is the largest and most sophisticated ever landed on another planet.  One, called the ChemCam, can shoot a powerful laser at a rock and, by analyzing the flash of light that results, determine the chemical composition of the target.  There are also two laboratory instruments to analyze the mineral and organic characteristics of rock and soil samples.

Unlike Spirit and Opportunity, whose power was delivered by solar panels, Curiosity uses a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) and will not be affected by such things as dust storms and should supply reliable power for the duration of the mission.

Previous missions, including rovers and orbiters, have blazed the trail for Curiosity, searching for safe landing sites near geological where we think lots of water flowed for a long time.  That’s how Curiosity ended up in the middle of the Gale Crater near Mount Sharp, the rover’s ultimate destination.

The time spent and care taken in choosing a landing site paid off.  The Gale crater’s rim looks like a terrestrial mountain range with scenery similar to the Mojave Dessert.  And the central peak is covered with little buttes and mesas, offering much for study.

In fact, Curiosity has made a number of discoveries while on its way to Mt. Sharp.  In late September the ChemCam was used to analyze “Jake Rock”, a rock unlike any ever seen on Mars but similar to certain Earth rocks.  The rover also recently discovered an ancient Martian stream bed containing rounded rocks and other evidence of flowing water and has successfully scooped up several samples of Martian soil and delivered one for analysis inside the rover.

It’s an exciting time for planetary astronomy with our close up study of Mars as well as what’s up in the sky.

This month in history:
Nov. 6:    Tycho Brahe observes supernova in Cassiopeia – 1572
Nov. 9:    Carl Sagan born. – 1934
Nov. 16:    Interstellar message broadcast from Arecibo radio telescope – 1974
Nov. 19:    Second lunar landing made by Apollo 12 – 1969
Nov. 20:    Edwin Hubble born – 1889
Nov. 26:    France launches satellite, becoming the third nation to do so – 1965