Keeping Up with Curiosity
● By Sandy Kauten
In the wee hours of August 6, 2012, one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of space exploration took place—the successful landing of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), better known as Curiosity, on Mars. Within seconds of her touchdown, the car-sized rover was transmitting pictures of the Martian landscape, including a few self-portraits. Erik Wecks, science fiction writer and father of three girls, stayed up late to view the landing on NASA TV. He says, “The first thing I did the next morning was wake my children and plop a laptop down…[to] watch the full replay. It was such a great moment…I still get goose bumps thinking about it.”
Curiosity has been busily analyzing samples of the Martian soil, rocks, and atmosphere ever since. By the end of her scheduled mission of one Martian year (almost two Earth years), scientists hope to determine whether Mars is, or ever was, capable of supporting microbial life.
Kids can learn a lot about science from Curiosity and her adventures on Mars. Here are just a few reasons to help your kids track the rover’s progress during the next year.
Science is collaborative. By learning about the creation of Curiosity, kids learn that scientific discoveries are usually made by teams rather than individuals. There is a persistent stereotype of the scientist working in isolation. Yet it took 7000 people to develop and build Curiosity, and a team of 400 is still required for her daily operations. Many disciplines—geology, microbiology, chemistry, and climatology to name a few—contributed to the project, and months of negotiation were required to make important decisions. For instance, the team scrutinized over sixty potential landing sites before deciding to have Curiosity touch down in the Gale Crater area.
It’s not “Star Wars.” Movies and video games seem so realistic, we tend to forget that the “special effects” are just that. Curiosity reminds us of exactly what is possible in 2013. Even though Mars is our planetary next door neighbor, it still took eight months for Curiosity (at a speed of 22,500 mph!) to reach the planet. And although NASA’s rover drivers operate Curiosity via remote control, the rover has little in common with the remote devices our kids are so adept at using. Due to the distance between Earth and Mars, there is a time lag of about 14 minutes between the time a rover driver sends a command, and the time Curiosity receives the command. Therefore, all routes must be planned well in advance.
Planets are connected. By comparing Earth’s environment to that of other planets, we come to better understand what is necessary to support life on Earth. It is thought that, billions of years ago, Mars and Earth had similar warm wet climates. Yet, Mars’s atmosphere is now so thin that it can no longer act as a “blanket.” Temperatures can reach a daytime high of almost 70F, only to plunge to -80F at night. Mars is extremely barren and dry, and huge dust storms have been known to envelop the planet for months. What caused this change in climate? Could the same thing happen on Earth? Michelle Selvans, a planetary geophysicist at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, says that “understanding the evolution of our neighbors can shed light on the process of climate change in general, which may help us…decide how to take care of our atmosphere in the future.”
Science is human. Some kids are turned off to science because they believe it’s all about memorization and numbers. Elizabeth Rusch is the author of The Mighty Mars Rovers: The Incredible Adventures of Spirit and Opportunity, in which she pays tribute to the much smaller twin rovers preceding Curiosity. She hopes her readers “see science not as a list of facts to memorize but as a journey and adventure full of surprising challenges and rewards.” While researching the book, she found that “the scientists and engineers who designed, built and worked with the rovers became attached to the little robots as they cheered them on and struggled to keep them safe.” Rusch concludes, “I realized that space exploration is ultimately a very human endeavor.”
Good science requires patience. Headlines were made when Curiosity’s wheels hit the Martian soil. Not so evident was the nine-year preparation for the event. Each component—from wheels to drills to communication equipment—had to be conceived, tested and re-tested multiple times. For instance, the parachute required to decelerate Curiosity for her landing was the largest supersonic chute ever created. The team soon realized that a chute of its size could not be tested by dropping it from a plane. They ended up at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, the largest wind tunnel in the world. Even then, modifications were required at the tunnel, and testing took months.
We are small, but we can think big. When kids learn about space and our solar system, they learn to think big. Wecks says, “In the scale of the cosmos we live on an insignificant speck of dust…I think studying the universe helps my kids remember that their own point of view isn’t the only point of view available to them. It helps them ask great questions and find wondrous answers.” Selvans, the planetary geophysicist, remembers a childhood of “looking at the night sky during camping trips, and…getting lost in that magical skyscape.” She concludes, “I think planets started fascinating me more than stars when I realized how much closer they are, so close we could actually…explore them in person!”
Indeed, the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA hope to send astronauts to Mars by 2035. Our kids will be the scientists, designers, and technicians who make this possible. Some will be the first humans to walk on another planet. How’s that for thinking big!
Fun Facts About Marvelous Mars
Mars is only half the size of Earth. Gravity on Mars is about 1/3 of Earth’s. On Mars, you’d weigh 1/3 of your Earth weight and you could jump 3 times as high.
Mars may be a smallish planet, but it has some giant landforms. The Red Planet is home to the tallest mountain (Olympus Mons), the largest canyon (Valles Marineris), and the deepest crater (Hellas Planitia) in our solar system.
Mars has two moons, Phobos and Deimos. The orbit of Phobos is so close to Mars, that it rises and sets two times during a Martian day.
Starting in July, planet gazers in the northern hemisphere will be able to view Mars in the eastern sky just before sunrise. The planet should remain visible a bit later in the morning through the winter months.
Curious About Curiosity?
Curiosity was named by a kid! As winner of the Mars Science Laboratory Naming Contest, then 6th grader Clara Ma’s essay was chosen from a field of 9000 entries.
Curiosity is the fourth rover on Mars, and by far the biggest. At 2000 pounds and ten feet long, she is double the size and ten times the weight of the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity that preceded her.
In just seven minutes, Curiosity had to decelerate from 13,000 mph to zero for her safe landing. The parachute used to slow her down measured 160 feet in length, 52 feet in diameter, and had to withstand 65,000 pounds of force.
A bicycle-making company based in Tennessee was hired to build Curiosity’s framework using the same kind of titanium fabrication they use to build bikes.Far Out Activities
It is difficult to imagine the size of our solar system, let alone our universe. Here are a couple of activities that bring this concept to life.
http://www.universetoday.com/15826/model-of-the-solar-system/ for instructions on how to make a model of our solar system to scale. (Hint: Using an 8-inch sun, Neptune would need to be placed several city blocks away!)
http://www.distancetomars.com/ shows how long it would take to get to Mars if the distance was measured in pixels.
Out of This World Websites !
If you missed Curiosity’s landing, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s “Seven Minutes of Terror” video (http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/video/index.php?id=1090) is a must see. Follow it up by watching the real-life, real-time reaction from the JPL control room as the team saw each stage of the landing (http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/video/index.php?id=1103).
JPL’s site (http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/kids/) also includes space-related interactive games at the Mars Fun Zone.
NASA’s http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/ includes lots of information, activities, and project ideas for kids of all ages.
http://www.kidsastronomy.com/mars_explorer.htm (Astronomy for Kids) provides an excellent historical overview of Mars exploration.
http://www.universetoday.com includes terrific up-to-date information about our universe, including blogs, how-tos, telescope use, and star-gazing strategies.
www.go-astronomy.com lists observatories, planetariums, and astronomy clubs in your state.