Cu­rios­ity Saves Sci­ence

NASA’S Mars Sci­ence Lab­o­ra­tory mis­sion seeks to an­swer man’s eter­nal ques­tions: Is earth a lonely planet? Is there any­one out there?

India Today - - NATION - BedabrataPain

The writer was a sci­en­tist with NASA, be­fore he turned film­maker.

His de­but film Chit­tagong is slated for re­lease this Oc­to­ber.

Spare a thought for what NASA en­gi­neers achieved. Land­ing an SUV- sized 5,000- kg rover on a planet some 300 mil­lion miles away with pin­point ac­cu­racy— and that too en­tirely on its own— is no mean feat. Spe­cially when two out of three mis­sions to Mars have ended in fail­ure. And what was be­ing ‘ down­loaded’ was the largest, most ex­pen­sive, most com­pli­cated and most in­tel­li­gent ma­chine hu­mans have sent to an­other planet. So, af­ter a soli­tary eight- month- long jour­ney to our neigh­bour­ing planet, when Cu­rios­ity touched down on the Gale Crater us­ing a never- tried- be­fore ‘ soft- land­ing’ method in­volv­ing a sky- crane con­trap­tion, it was truly a ju­bi­lant mo­ment. US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama rightly called it “an un­prece­dented feat of tech­nol­ogy”.

How­ever, Mars Sci­ence Lab­o­ra­tory ( MSL) mis­sion is not just about cel­e­brat­ing a stu­pen­dous tech­ni­cal achieve­ment. Its sci­ence goal is equally in­trigu­ing. It is to do with ex­plo­ration for con­di­tions for life— find­ing out if Mars did ( and still does) sup­port life. Is earth a lonely planet? Are we alone? These ques­tions have stirred the fan­cies of many a gen­er­a­tion, and given rise to many a myth and leg­end at the hands of Hol­ly­wood and con­spir­acy the­o­rists. But be­yond the hori­zon of sci­ence fic­tion lurks sci­ence re­al­ity as well— with well thought- out ques­tions, painstak­ing re­search, and some­times, in­trigu­ing an­swers. Search for life out­side earth has es­sen­tially taken three dis­tinct paths— scour­ing our plan­e­tary neigh­bour­hood, search­ing for earth- like plan­ets ( about half to 10 times the size and ap­prox­i­mately same dis­tance from the par­ent star), and cos­mic ‘ wire- tap­ping’ con­sist­ing of search­ing for syn­thetic ra­dio fre­quency sig­nals from dis­tant stars in hopes of pick­ing up the static from an in­tel­li­gent civil­i­sa­tion.

Aptly named Cu­rios­ity, the MSL rover has gone to one of the most promis­ing hunt­ing grounds for life— Mars. But how do you hunt for life? What de­fines a liv­ing crea­ture? To keep the prob­lem to man­age­able lim­its, an as­tro­bi­ol­o­gist to­day searches for life- forms based on car­bon chemistries, like all life- forms on mother earth. Chem­i­cally speak­ing, there are good rea­sons to bet on car­bon— its bond en­ergy is in the right level to al­low for­ma­tion of sta­ble and com­plex mol­e­cules. Now the prob­lem sim­pli­fies to search­ing for dif­fer­ent kinds of or­ganic mol­e­cules, wa­ter ( one of the best sol­vents), and sources of en­ergy. Need­less to say, ‘ Fol­low the wa­ter trail’ be­comes a vi­able search strat­egy.

In our neigh­bour­hood, Mars is the only planet ( aside from Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons) that ap­pears to have had con­di­tions suit­able for life. Sur­veyor pic­tures have re­peat­edly shown in­di­ca­tions of now dried- up but once flow­ing wa­ter beds. The tem­per­a­ture and pres­sure on Mars to­day are far too low to al­low wa­ter in liq­uid form to ex­ist, but all in­di­ca­tions are of a warmer and wet­ter past.

In 1970s, the Vik­ing Mis­sion by NASA tried to di­rectly de­tect dor­mant life by wa­ter­ing and fer­til­is­ing the soil and look­ing for car­bon diox­ide emis­sions. The re­sults were star­tling but am­bigu­ous, and with lim­ited util­ity. MSL un­der­took a more pru­dent and less pop­ulist en­deav­our. It con­cerned it­self with the aim of find­ing the con­di­tions of life and ex­plor­ing ar­eas that could have been life- friendly— past or present. And per­haps, sci­en­tif­i­cally and philo­soph­i­cally, this is a more im­por­tant ques­tion to in­ves­ti­gate. Our ma­te­rial and so­cial world is re­plete with ev­i­dence that ev­ery phe­nom­e­non re­quires the right con­di­tions to un­fold and flour­ish. Un­til you have the right con­di­tions, no mat­ter how noble your in­ten­tions are, you can­not make head­way.

Cu­rios­ity houses 10 in­stru­ments that can col­lect Mar­tian soil sam­ple and an­a­lyse it, as well as an­a­lyse sur­round­ing Mar­tian at­mos­phere. It is armed with drilling tools that will drill through rock, grind them to dust and de­liver the sam­ples to dif­fer­ent in­stru­ments for in­ves­ti­ga­tion. MSL hopes to de­tect biosig­na­tures that are dif­fer­ent from what may be pro­duced by pure phys­i­cal pro­cesses. All these ex­per­i­ments will per­haps tell us more about the planet than we have learnt in the last 40 years. In the next cou­ple of years, Cu­rios­ity, de­spite its lim­ited aims, might add new fuel to the fire of our eter­nal cu­rios­ity about how life comes into be­ing and is sus­tained.

THE MAR­TIAN HORI­ZON, CAP­TURED BY CAM­ERAS ABOARD THE CU­RIOS­ITY ROVER

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