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Curiosity’s mission to probe Mars for signs of life

US President Barack Obama hailed the Monday landing of NASA’s latest Mars explorer "Curiosity" as "making history" as the rover prepares to probe the red planet in unprecedented detail.


At 7:31 a.m. (Paris time) on Monday, August 6, US space agency NASA landed a huge new robot named Curiosity on the surface of Mars after a nine-month journey that covered some 570 million kilometres.

Weighing nearly a tonne, the six-wheeled Curiosity is heavier than all previous probes that have been sent to the red planet combined.

“This is an historic day here at NASA,” said French space specialist and writer Frédéric Castel from the space agency’s headquarters in Pasadena. The importance of the landing, after an extremely tense seven-minute descent from Martian orbit, was greeted by an explosion of joy at the control centre.

For the NASA team it has been a colossal venture getting Curiosity on the ground. Its mission, to discover if the planet’s environment has ever sustained life, has cost some $2.5 billion (€2 billion) and will last one Martian year (around two earth years).

In 2004, Curiosity’s predecessors -- Spirit and Opportunity -- took the first steps in NASA’s quest to find traces of life.

These missions returned significant results, but Curiosity’s is significantly more ambitious.

Sprit and Opportunity were hunting evidence of water -- essential to all life -- on Mars. Curiosity will be looking one step further, seeking out molecules of organic carbon, which is a key indicator that life has or had evolved on the planet.

Experts believe that if these molecules are to be found they will lie between the strata of sedimentary rocks, as they do on our own planet.

To carry out its research, Curiosity is equipped with the latest in analytical technology.

Powered by a nuclear battery capable of keeping it going for 14 years, this wheeled super-laboratory can drill into rocks and the ground, analyse the findings and report everything back to mission control in Pasadena.

Curiosity has a number of on-board tools, many of which are made in France, including a mast made up of high-definition cameras and a laser capable of analysing the chemical and mineral composition of rocks.

“Curiosity is an incredible feat of engineering in itself,” said Castel. “Unlike its predecessors, it can conduct its own analyses on Martian rocks and carry out experiments as if a geologist was on Mars.”

The unprecedented landing of such a comprehensive tool to study the Martian environment was hailed by US President Barack Obama on Twitter: “Tonight, on the planet Mars, the United States made history.”

But it remains to be seen if the results of Curiosity’s mission offer the prospect of realising an age-old, and as yet earthbound, fantasy -- the eventual colonisation of the red planet by humans.

According to Doug McCuistion, head of NASA’s Mars programme, it is not such a far-flung concept, and is even one of the American robot’s objectives.

“Inhabiting Mars? Why not? But not before 2030 at least,” said Castel, adding that space agencies would have to find a way to protect astronauts during the two-year journey.

“High solar radiation levels would certainly kill any passengers well before they reached Mars," he said, adding that such a mission would cost around $100 billion -- a price tag that, in these austere times, may require it to be left to a future generation to “boldly go”.

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