We are VERY excited to share today’s guest blog post from Emily Lakdawalla, Senior Editor and Planetary Evangelist at The Planetary Society, which is THE place to go for expert sources regarding planetary exploration, space policy, and the search for extraterrestrial life. The Planetary Society’s CEO is none other than Bill Nye, The Science Guy. Emily Lakdawalla is a passionate advocate for the exploration of all the worlds of our solar system. After reading her post below, WE’RE more excited than ever about off-world exploration as well. Read on!
Have you ever imagined going to Mars? Would you like to walk on Mars someday? No human has walked on Mars yet. We haven’t yet built spaceships that can take us there and land us safely. But humans are still exploring Mars. We explore Mars by looking through the eyes of an intelligent robot. Her name is Curiosity.
Every Martian day, Curiosity follows our instructions and sends pictures back home to Earth. YOU can see those pictures! Every day that Curiosity talks to Earth, you can go see the pictures she has taken, and explore Mars with her.
If you follow those links above you will find a LOT of pictures. Curiosity sometimes takes HUNDREDS of pictures every day! What are all of those pictures for? To answer that question, I have to tell you about Curiosity’s different kinds of cameras.
Just like you, Curiosity has a head on top of her body, with eyes that she uses to see the landscape around her. But Curiosity has more eyes than you do. There are seven “eyes” just on her head!
Curiosity uses four of her eyes to look around her — to figure out where she is, and where she needs to go. These are called Navcams (because they are for “navigation”). There are two Navcams on each side of Curiosity’s head. When you see sky, and mountains, and rocks all in one photo, those are Navcam images. Like this one:
See that mountain? There are cool rocks there. The rocks could answer our questions about whether Mars was ever warm and wet like Earth, or if it was always cold and dry. Is Earth the only place in the solar system where there was ever life? Curiosity is heading for that mountain to help us answer that question.
The scientists who work on the Curiosity mission can’t wait to get to that mountain. Have you ever been on a long car trip? Did you ask “Are we there yet?” The scientists working on the Curiosity mission are asking the rover drivers “Are we there yet?”
But we’re not there yet. Curiosity has to drive about six more kilometers (about four miles) in order to get there. That may not sound too bad, but Curiosity is not fast. It will probably take most of 2014 for Curiosity to get there. When you check Curiosity’s photos every day, look for that mountain. Is it getting bigger? Is Curiosity getting closer? Are we there yet?
So Curiosity looks around her (and you can look around with her) with the Navcams. When the scientists see something really cool with the Navcams, they say, “wow, I want a better picture of that.” Two more cameras on Curiosity’s head take beautiful color photos. Those are called Mastcams.
Scientists use pictures from Curiosity’s Mastcams to look closely at rocks to understand what they are. Are they lava rocks that came out of a volcano?
Are they rocks made of broken bits of other rocks?
Or do they have thin, flat layers, like they were made of the soft mud at the bottom of a lake?
Sometimes, if scientists are curious enough about those rocks, they’ll tell Curiosity to look at them really closely. Curiosity can’t bend her head down like you can. Instead, she has an extra “eye” on the end of a robotic arm. This camera is called the Mars Hand Lens Imager. Here’s a picture from the Hand Lens Imager. What do you see in the picture?
When Curiosity’s scientists first saw this picture, they asked the same questions you are probably asking now. What are those round things? What are those holes with the white stuff inside? And guess what? They didn’t know the answers. If they knew all the answers, there wouldn’t be any reason to explore! That’s why we sent Curiosity to Mars. To see new things, and ask new questions, and maybe to get some answers.
There aren’t any people on Mars yet. But people are exploring Mars, with Curiosity, and you can, too. Go check out Curiosity’s photos. You can ask all the same questions the mission scientists are asking. What is that? Isn’t that pretty? Isn’t that weird? How did it get there? What was Mars like when this rock was made?
You don’t have to wait to grow up to be a scientist. You can be a scientist right now, asking questions, reading books about space exploration, and exploring Mars with Curiosity!
Emily Lakdawalla is a Planetary Society blogger, podcaster, webcaster, Twitterer, et cetera. A true science cheerleader and total space geek, Emily is considered one of the most influential and passionate space bloggers around. Emily is a planetary geologist with a unique way of blending science facts and space news with a sense of whimsy, and, yes, lots of pretty pictures!