Curiosity Kills Cat, Leads Us to Red Planet
Imagine for a moment that you are floating through space—dark, desolate, and deep. Months have passed since you left Earth. You’re millions of miles away from home, far removed from any comfort you’ve ever known. Then slowly, out of that interminable blanket of nothingness emerges a luminous red orb. You seem to be heading toward it, almost as if it’s pulling you in. The orb grows larger and larger as you approach it at rapid speed. In a cathartic moment, you realize that it’s not just an orb—it’s an entire planet. You have reached Mars.
Since November of 2011, NASA’s Curiosity rover has been making its way to Mars on a journey very similar to the one just described. Humans have long dreamed of setting foot on our neighboring red planet; however, until we learn more about the planet’s conditions and makeup, we’re sending the latest Earth-born technology in our stead. That’s exactly what the Curiosity is for. The mission’s main objectives include (1) determining Mars’ habitability, (2) studying its climate and geology, and (3) collecting data for potential human missions in the future.
Aboard the Curiosity is a combination of various instruments nicknamed SAM (Sample Analysis of Mars). For one Martian year (approximately 687 Earth days), SAM will be collecting images and samples from the planet’s surface and atmosphere, then sending data back to Earth for us to process. What’s exciting for citizen scientists is that SAM’s data will eventually contribute to the citizen science projects that the Mars Public Engagement Team manages. We can look forward to taking part in some of the most important space research of our time.
For now, eager citizen scientists should check out NASA’s Be A Martian, an interactive Mars science laboratory that allows visitors to help scientists learn about the red planet. You can help identify important features in images returned from previous Mars rovers, ask and vote on questions for NASA Mars experts in a virtual town hall, explore a Mars atlas to learn more about the planet’s terrain, send postcards to Spirit (another Mars rover), and watch educational videos in the Two Moons theater. NASA also has a plethora of other citizen science projects to offer as well!
In the 1960s, the Space Race brought the world together in bearing witness to some of the most amazing advances in space exploration. We watched in wonder as Sputnik followed its trajectory across the night sky. We held our breath during the Apollo missions, then watched man’s first walk on the moon. In the decades to follow, projects like the Voyager enchanted the skies once again and opened our minds to the possibility of life somewhere in the infinite void beyond our tiny blue planet. Today we await the landing of the Curiosity, one of the inaugural steps forward into the future and understanding worlds beyond our own.
The Curiosity is scheduled to land on August 6, 2012. NASA’s coverage of the event is scheduled to begin at 11:30 p.m. ET Sunday night and go until 4 a.m. ET Monday morning. The landing itself is scheduled for 1:31 a.m. ET Monday. The first images to reach Earth will be low-resolution black and white images; higher-resolution, color images will be beamed back 48 hours after the main rover mast deploys. Make sure to tune in. You might just catch a little bit of space (and human) history in the making.