Was there ever life on Mars? Many people hope the Mars rover “Curiosity,” launched from Florida on Saturday in part thanks to the expertise of a Cornell professor, may be able to answer this great unknown.
Expected to land on the red planet Aug. 6, 2012, the rover will investigate Mars for close to two years. Curiosity is equipped with 10 scientific instruments, two of which — the Sample Analysis at Mars and its Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer — Prof. Steven Squyres ’78 Ph.D. ’81, astronomy, helped build.
“The landing site has a thick stack of layered sedimentary rocks and some of the rocks in the stack are full of sulfate minerals, others are full of clay minerals,” Squyres said of the landing site within Mars’ “Gale Crater.” “What we’re going to try to do is find out how those were deposited and what kinds of environmental conditions they represent in the past on Mars.
Squyres contributed to the rover’s Sample Analysis at Mars, which will look for organic molecules in the Martian rocks, and its Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer, which will measure the elemental composition of rocks and soil.
Squyres is also the lead scientist of the first two Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, which were sent to the red planet in 2003 and 2004, respectively. Calling Curiosity “sophisticated,” Squyres said the most recent rover is the most advanced yet.
“Curiosity is substantially more capable than Spirit and Opportunity in several respects,” Squyres said. “It’s got a nuclear power source, so it should probably last a lot longer, and it’s got a capability to look for organic molecules, which is something we can’t do with the current rovers.”
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden expressed optimism about Curiosity’s venture to Mars.
“We are very excited about sending the world's most advanced scientific laboratory to Mars,” Bolden said in a press release about the rover, which is in NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft. “MSL will tell us critical things we need to know about Mars, and while it advances science, we'll be working on the capabilities for a human mission to the red planet and to other destinations where we've never been.”