Flying saucer blasts off to seek life on Mars

This weekend the USA launched one of the most ambitious space missions ever. ‘Let’s go to see them before they come to see us,’ said the White House when asked about aliens.

The most delicate piece of car parking in history was launched this weekend when NASA sent a remote control ‘flying saucer’ to Mars that aims to lower a vehicle gently onto the surface of the Red Planet without damage.

The Mars rover, named Curiosity, is the most expensive vehicle ever sent into space. It will travel 140 million miles inside an unmanned rocket, Atlas 5, at an average speed of 13,000 mph. When the rocket arrives at the edge of the Martian atmosphere in nine and a half months time, it will launch a flying saucer that will carry Curiosity the rest of the way.

The flying saucer will use thrusters to slow itself down to 1,000 mph until it reaches about 60 feet from the ground. Then it will slow to a hover. Opening its hold, it will automatically use four cables to lower six-wheeled Curiosity, laden with millions of dollars-worth of research equipment, to the ground. As soon as the vehicle has landed safely, the saucer will reverse thrust and move off to a safe distance before crashing.

Curiosity will be parked near Martian canyons believed to have been carved by running water. Many scientists now believe that water periodically floods this area and may have created the first traces of life beneath the surface of the ground. The Mars rover will then unfurl its antennae and sensors, turn on its engine and begin its two-year drive along the canyons and up a mountain inside a crater just south of the Martian equator.

The ‘drivers’ of the vehicle will be back where it was built, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratories of California. Remote control from earth is possible but complicated since it takes 20 minutes for a signal to travel to Mars. Much of the rover’s journey is preprogrammed.

Alien invasion?

NASA has been careful to limit expectations of the $2.5 billion mission, in case it is dubbed a waste of money. It is not hoping to find Martians or aliens. At most it is aiming to find molecules that might hint at living organisms and perhaps suggest future prospects for mining. Curiosity will constantly analyse fragments of soil as it travels and send results back to earth.

But many hard-headed scientists believe that the probability of living creatures existing beyond earth is very high, whether or not they are on Mars. For them, every daring mission such as this is laden with excitement since it offers a chance of discovering proof of life. A trace of vegetable matter or evidence of any kind of intelligence at work and the world of space research, not to mention science fiction, will be revolutionised for ever.

You Decide

  1. Would it be more exciting to be a scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory or a scientist at a medical research lab inventing a cure for cancer?
  2. Is there wealth in space, such as oil or gold; or useful life such as animals that could be farmed; or intelligent life that could actually be a friend and guide to humanity?

Activities

  1. Write a short fiction in which Curiosity is actually used by a Martian as a family car, while sending back very dull fake reports to earth, in order to keep the scientists happy.
  2. Write a serious essay exploring the benefits that might realistically be possible if Curiosity were to find any traces of living matter on Mars in the next two years.

Some People Say...

“Undoubtedly creatures of a higher intelligence somewhere are laughing at our fumbling efforts to explore new worlds.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Is this the first Mars landing?
Not at all. There have been many others, and two out of three have failed – most recently a Russian probe called Phobos-Grunt which got stuck in low orbit and will fall back to earth over the next few days.
; And the most tricky part of the operation?
Definitely the landing. A miscalculation of just a millionth of a percent and a billion dollars worth of scientific equipment could crash into smithereens on the surface of Mars or be left dangling helplessly miles up in space.
If it all goes well, what happens after two years?
Curiosity gets abandoned to its fate and left to decay. It might make a perfect toy for a bored Martian, but there is no evidence that any previous landing vehicles have ever been used for anything other than the purpose for which they were intended.

Word Watch

NASA
America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration whose grand mission is ‘to reach for new heights and reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind’.
The Red Planet
Another common name for Mars due to the iron oxide that covers much of the planet’s surface, giving it a reddish appearance.
Martian atmosphere
The air around Mars is composed of over 95% carbon dioxide, which would be deadly to humans and means the air is very thin, providing little resistance for parachutes and other flying objects. This makes it all the harder for scientists to plan smooth landings.
Jet Propulsion Laboratories
Operating under the wing of NASA, JPL currently has 21 spacecraft and 10 instruments conducting active missions – all, it claims, ‘important parts of NASA’s program of exploration of earth, the solar system and the universe beyond.’

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.