The Rover Instrumantation
The On-Board Science Laboratory
Search for Life Elements
Since the 1970s, other missions have told us much more about Mars. Successful Rovers and orbiters have produced detailed maps of the Red Planet's
surface and breakdowns of its atmosphere. They have revealed just how hard it would be for life to survive in the planet's extreme environment.
Ashwin Vasavada "The surface of Mars today is a very harsh place to life. There's a lot of things that has hazards to life. Now we are interested
in knowing whether those same hazards were there in the past and maybe early Mars as opposed to present Mars was the place to look for life."
Today, Mars is an inhospitable desert. It's thin atmosphere leaves its surface exposed to lethal solar and cosmic radiation. Average temperatures
of -55°C would make it very hard for life, as we know it, to survive. That's why Curiosity is not expecting to find life here and now. Instead, it
will try to discover if life could have survived there millions of years ago.
Which means the Rover not only has to travel all the way to Mars, it has to travel back in time. This desert, 200 miles outside Los Angeles has
become a second home for the Curiosity team. It's an ideal place not just to test the Rover, but also to design the mission's science.
Chief scientist John Grotzinger is in charge of the experiments that will enable the Rover to see into the past.
Not by looking for bones or fossils, but by trying to find elements crucial for life. Simple things, like liquid water.
John Grotzinger "What we're going to do is an acid test. Taking a few drops, put it on the rock and see if it fizzes. And what that tells us is
that this rock is made out of a mineral called carbonate. And carbonates on Earth form in lots of water, and that tells us that this dry desert that
we're in here today, 600 million years ago, there was an ocean."
It was liquid water in ancient lakes and seas that allowed life to take hold. So curiosity is scientists have carefully chosen a Martian landing
site similar to this spot in the Mojave desert. Curiosity will hunt for the same evidence of a wetter past in the Gale Crater on Mars.
John Grotzinger "Here's Gale Crater, with Mount Sharp majestically rising above the plains."
Mount Sharp is a Martian mountain, rising 18,000 feet above the centre of the massive Gale Crater. The scientists believe their Rover could
find carbonates here, proving this Martian crater was also filled with water in its ancient past. But that's not the only similarity that Mount
Sharp has with the mountains here in Mojave Desert. In both places, the team can use the rock itself to travel back in time to any moment in the
The mountains are formed of layers, built up gradually over millennia. Testing each one will reveal what the environment was like there at
the particular moment in time it was laid down.
John Grotzinger "What we see here is a stack of layers that tell us about the early environmental history of the Earth, representing
hundreds of millions of years. They read like a book of Earth history and they tell us about different chapters in evolution of early
environments and life. And the cool thing about going to Mount Sharp at Gale Crater is going to be there, we'll have a different book
about the LA environmental history of Mars that will tell us something equally interesting, and we don't know what it's going to be yet."
The team believe the place they've chosen to land is the perfect spot to look back in time. They want to see if Mars could have supported life at
any point in its history.
John Grotzinger "What curiosity can do as they begin to explore Gale, is pretty much what the geologist would do on Earth, but it's also
bringing along a chemistry lab."
The official name of the mission is Mars Science Laboratory. And with good reason.
John Grotzinger "We have three different camera systems. We have an instrument that involves a laser that gives us the ability to zap out and
understand the composition of the environment around us. We've got instruments that can ping things down in the subsurface and tell us if there
is water down there. And then we got other instruments that can actually tell us about the laboratory conditions, like what you do on Earth."
It's this chemistry lab, right in the belly of the Rover, that makes the mission really special.
John Grotzinger "What Curiosity can do, which has never been done before on a Rover mission, is to actually drill a hole in the rock, take the powder
and put it into the chemistry laboratory which is inside the Rover. And that I'm really excited about, because it takes us to the whole other level
with science analysis on Mars."