21 August 2012, 17:31

Curiosity expected to boost Martian science worldwide

Curiosity expected to boost Martian science worldwide

After the successful landing of NASA’s Curiosity, the Martian rover has begun its odyssey across the surface of Mars. The first destination has been already named and the rover is set to travel once its systems are tested. Meanwhile, India has announced its intention to fly to Mars in little more than a year, thus contributing to the Mars flotilla before ExoMars.

Every one of the ten instruments aboard Curiosity is a cause for concern for their developers as well as the public. So far, the Chemistry and Camera instrument – or ChemCam for short – has fired its first pulses to check its condition and collect data on the so-called Coronation rock, which is being used as a test bed for ChemCam payload. 

Russia also has every reason to celebrate, since the Russian DAN neutron spectrometer was successfully tested in active mode on August 17. The instrument is comprised of a neutron detector and neutron generator that will be used to probe upper layers of the Martian surface in search of water ice deposits. A similar neutron detector and DAN’s predecessor has been working onboard NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter since 2001. DAN exploits essentially the same method of neutron spectroscopy, but it also includes a powerful neutron generator to induce a neutron flux from beneath the surface. The instrument was developed in the Russian Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences and Nikolai Dukhov All-Russian Research Institute of Automatics, together with other Russian scientific and engineering organizations. 

DAN was successfully switched on and off, functioning normally for about an hour. The first data obtained also holds some information on the surface’s composition and background radiation at the landing site. However, the surface at the landing site has been contaminated by Sky Crane engines, which delivered the rover, so one has to wait until Curiosity moves to a pristine environment. 

This may happen as early as September, provided that the rover’s driving system functions normally, which will be tested next week. If all goes well, the rover will be headed towards an already pre-determined region named Glenelg approximately 400 meters from Curiosity’s current location to make the first drills. This route, however short, may take up to two months, with Curiosity staying at Glenelg for a month afterwards. Then the rover will head for the main target, which are the slopes of Mount Sharp in the Gale crater. 

Meanwhile, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh happened to become another Mars-related newsmaker after announcing that India plans to launch its own orbital probe to Mars in late 2013, thus confirming earlier announcements made at the beginning of the year. The exact date is presumably subject to change, since earlier reports stated that the probe could be launched somewhere between 2013 and 2015. The probe is expected to be delivered to outer space by the Indian-made PSLV rocket. 

India has never before sent a probe to Mars. Its planetary program started with the Chandrayaan-1 lunar probe, which was successfully launched in 2008. Its successor Chandrayaan-2 – together with Russia – was expected to be next in line, but it turns out that Mars is favored over the Moon. 

There are several reasons for this, not the least of which are Russian lunar plans, which were tightly interwoven with India’s, seem to be rather unstable after the Phobos-Grunt failure. Moreover, after Russia had engaged in the ESA's ExoMars project, India openly expressed its concerns over the fate of the lunar mission. 

On the other hand, the Moon has been already visited by India, while Mars is both a challenge and a place of interest – seemingly a point of attraction for main space powers. Recent announcements by NASA are boosting public interest in Mars, while the Moon – even though NASA’s LRO has recently found helium in its atmosphere – is no longer the center of attention. 

The only doubt is the time period. Even though the announced orbiter will be rather small – its price was estimated at 70–90 million US dollars – the end of 2013 is only a year away. Moreover, there is no description of the mission on ISRO’s web site that might point at the rather hasty pace of the mission development schedule. However, one has to wait just several months to properly judge the viability of the plan. 

Two weeks after the Curiosity rover landed on Mars, the US Space Agency has announced another robot to be sent to the planet in 2016.

Trying to find a relatively low-cost spacecraft, Nasa chose InSight out of three candidates for the mission.

The InSight spacecraft will be a static lander that will carry instruments for Mars' deep interior exploration. Scientists propose to conduct seismic investigations, as well as geodesy and heat transport experiments. They are sure that this will give them a clearer idea of how the rocky planets are formed, including the Earth. The whole set of data will inform researchers about the internal state of Mars today and how it has changed through the eons. 

According to previous estimates, InSight will cost $425 million, not including the cost of a rocket needed for launching the spacecraft.

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