Morning After in Mars
The mission to Mars marks the golden age of NASA’S space exploration. India’s ISRO can be equally inspirational in man’s search of “star stuff”, says an Indian scientist at NASA.
The mission to Mars marks the golden age of NASA’s space exploration. India’s ISRO can be equally inspirational in man’s search of “star stuff”, says an Indian scientist at NASA.
Gold medal for NASA. Curiosity sticks the landing,” read the giant electronic board at the entrance of NASA Ames Research Center in the heart of Silicon Valley, California, on August 6. The night before, Shenandoah Plaza, yards away from the board, was filled with thousands of space enthusiasts who were waiting with bated breath to experience an incredible feat of the curious human mind: The landing of NASA’s spacecraft, Curiosity, on a crater, Gale, atop planet Mars.
Curiosity has journeyed 352 million miles for eight- and- a- half months to satisfy one eternal curiosity: Did the Red Planet ever offer conditions suitable for even the simplest form of life? The successful landing has ended one very challenging aspect of NASA’s Mars mission. However, the most significant part of the exploration and exciting science is about to begin.
As Curiosity entered the final and most tricky stage of its solo flight on August 5, over 7,000 people braved the chilly winds from the San Francisco Bay to celebrate the historic event. Six- year- old Liz came with her mother, father and little brother in a crib, middle schoolers came in buses, young software engineers came from hundreds of companies close by. There were space enthusiasts on camp chairs, Star Trek fans, hippies, food trucks, public lectures, science booths manned by NASA scientists, DJs blasting out tracks. Around 10 p. m., the anticipation reached fever pitch as the count- down to the final seven minutes before touchdown began. All eyes were fixed on the giant screens. Seven minutes later, amidst a surfeit of fist- pumping, clapping, cheering and yelling, a dream came true: We were in Mars.
It is undoubtedly the hardest and most ambitious robotic exploration mission ever attempted by NASA. Hundreds of scientists have been working on this engineering marvel for over 14 years— planning, designing, developing and testing. A heavy payload of nearly a tonne has necessitated an extraordinary sky crane with booster rockets and heavy duty cables to slow down and soft- land Curiosity on the Martian surface. After it was launched from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral in Florida on November 26, 2011, Curiosity has
had to beat all kinds of odds. What the world witnessed was just the final phase: From cruise stage separation, entry into Mars atmosphere, heating and slowdown, powered descent and landing by sky crane.
What will Curiosity exactly do on the surface of Mars? During its two- year lifetime, the Mars Science Laboratory ( MSL) on board Curiosity will perform a host of scientific experiments. Mars, like earth, also falls in the habitable zone, the region around a star where a planet can maintain surface water. There is no evidence of liquid water on Mars, but it has icecapped north and south poles. Curiosity will beam information back to the earth on Martian geology, soil composition, atmosphere and other environmental conditions, using its state- of- the- art cameras, radiation detectors, spectrometers, and atmospheric sensors.
ChemCam, the chemistry and camera instrument on Curiosity, will shoot a laser beam and analyse the composition of the soil and rock. CheMin, the chemistry and mineralogy X- ray instruments, will examine the presence of minerals, expected to indicate environments and water millions of years ago. MastCam will take snapshots of the Martian terrain. Sample Analysis at Mars ( SAM) will look for organic molecules with prebiotic potential, which will indicate potential habitability in the past. There exists a mound, 5 km in height, at the centre of the crater. Data from previous Mars missions indicated abundance of water in the past. If MSL finds minerals formed in water, such as clay, and complex organic compounds containing carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen and sulphur, it will mean that suitable environmental conditions for life possibly existed. With the successful landing of Curiosity, we are in a good position to start asking these vital questions. We also expect the MSL to provide data that will help us search for some of the answers.
We are entering the golden age of space exploration. Many ongoing and forthcoming missions from NASA may change the way we view the universe and life in the universe. KEPLER, a mission conceptualised and headquartered at NASA Ames Research Center, is simultaneously observing hundreds and thousands of stars in our Milky Way galaxy and searching for earthsized planets in the habitable zones of nearby stars. Hubble Space Telescope pictures of the visible universe have mesmerised us since childhood. Ongoing mission SOFIA, an airborne observatory, will revolutionise astronomy after Hubble and other space telescopes. James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled to be launched in 2018 to look for the first luminous objects after Big Bang and unravel how galaxies evolved. Planetary mission MAVEN will bring Mars even closer to our doorstep. NASA, however, means more than just missions. It’s about the inspiration it provides to millions of young minds about the glamour of state- of- the- art science and engineering, the celebrities it creates— be it the Mohawk Flight Director at mission control of Curiosity, an Internet sensation now, or household names such as Kalpana Chawla or Sunita Williams who inspire generations. It is this call of the universe that brings Indian scientists to NASA, to work on space, earth, biological sciences, aeronautics, fluid mechanics and several other areas. It’s
a story that can be repeated in India. The Indian Space Research Organisation ( ISRO) can be equally inspirational to the world. Chandrayaan- 1 has been a grand success. The data it has sent has proved the presence of water on the moon. ISRO is now preparing to launch Chandrayaan- 2, a mission that will have an orbiter and a lander- rover in the next couple of years. It will test soil and rocks on the moon’s surface and give a huge strategic advantage to the Indian space programme as there are just two other missions to the moon planned in the near future: The Chinese mission, Change 3, and NASA’S LADEE. The Government of India has just approved a highly anticipated orbiter mission to Mars, planned for launch next year by ISRO.
Carl Sagan once said, “We are made of star stuff.” Perhaps we will find out in this century if such “star stuff” gave birth to life as we know it in other celestial bodies near us. That will tell us if we are alone or the universe is teeming with life. Hopefully, India will be a leading partner in that effort. Partha P. Bera is a research scientist in
the Space Science and Astrobiology division at NASA Ames Research Center