As the Curiosity rover, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, landed on Mars on August 6, scientists hope to find out more about the mysterious planet and answer questions about life there.Babu Gogineni email@example.com
After a 567 million kilometre journey that took some eight and a half months, Curiosity, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, landed safely near the planet’s equator on August 6, 2012.
The last of our solar system’s four rocky planets, Mars is about half the Earth’s size. It is very Earth-like with a 24-hour and 37 minute-long day. Since its orbit is twice as long as the Earth’s, a Martian year takes 687 days to complete and an axial tilt of 25.2° means Mars has seasons like the Earth.
Surface gravity on Mars is 38 per cent of the gravity on Earth which means that lighter gases have escaped into outer space. Today Mars’ ultra thin atmosphere is made of 95 per cent carbon dioxide and some sulphur, chlorine and phosphorous. As there is no atmospheric shield, the planet is bombarded by deadly ionising radiation.
Mars has the largest dust storms of the solar system. The solar system’s highest mountain, the 21 km-high Olympus Mons, and one of the solar system’s largest canyons, the 7 km-deep Valles Marineris which is four times deeper and nine times longer than the Grand Canyon, are both on this planet.
Mars is cold — temperatures vary between -87° C and 0° C, and the ice on the polar caps is mostly frozen carbon dioxide and water ice.
Mars no longer has a dipolar magnetic field, so a compass would not work on the planet!
Two small, irregularly shaped, natural moons orbit Mars — interestingly, Phobos rises in the West while Deimos rises in the East!
Mars was known to the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians and Chinese. The Greeks and the Romans associated it with the gods of war because of its reddish appearance which is due to the rust or iron oxide in its soil. Astrologers and alchemists considered Mars a symbol of masculinity, and used the symbol for it. The 4th century Indian scientific text Surya-siddhanta tried to estimate its diameter, while the Indian week day Mangalavaram is named after the planet.
In recent times, interest in Mars revived in 1877 when the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli used a 22-cm telescope to observe Mars. He noted a labyrinth of straight lines or grooves which he called canali. Wrongly translated as ‘canals’ this led to frenzied speculation about an advanced civilization on Mars.
Percival Lowell’s sincere but deluded book Life on Mars; HG Wells’ science fiction The War of the Worlds about the Martian invasion of the Earth, and Nikola Tesla’s claim that he received radio signals from Mars added fuel to popular speculation about life on Mars. Such was the mythology of life on Mars that when Orson Welles broadcast a radio adaptation of HG Well’s book in 1938, a great public panic ensued. Even in the 1960s articles were being published about Martian biology — clearly, the great biologist Alfred Russell Wallace’s criticism of Lowell in his 1907 book Is Mars Habitable had limited impact!
After the canali were shown to be an optical illusion because of a limitation in the early telescopes, and after American, Russian and European Mars missions did not find any life on Mars, the wild fantasising stopped. But in 1999, NASA’S Viking orbiter sent a picture of a ‘happy face’ in the Galle Crater, and many did not accept that it was just a play of shadows and not the sign of some intelligent Martians.
However, some serious questions about life on Mars remain: is the small quantity of methane detected on Mars of biological origin? In 1984, a Martian meteorite was discovered in Antarctica with what seemed like fossil records of primitive life. Did primitive life exist on Mars 3.6 billion years ago?
NASA’s Curiosity may set us on the path to the answers: weighing a thousand kilos, it carries over ten times the mass of scientific instruments carried by previous NASA rovers. The robotic rover has an alpha particle X-ray spectrometer to determine the elements in the soil, and a sample analysis instrument that will look for carbon- based compounds. Curiosity will analyse soil samples and beam the information to the Earth for the next two years.
At $2.5 billion, Curiosity cost a mere 1/6th of the expenditure for the London Olympics but it has already demonstrated humanity’s resolve to go faster, higher and stronger to unravel the Universe’s mysteries.
- Surface gravity on Mars is 38% of the gravity on Earth.
- Mars is cold. The temperatures vary between -87°C and 0°C.
- The 4th century Indian
- scientific text Surya-siddhunta tried to estimate its diameter.
- The Indian week day Mangalavaram is named after the planet.
- Mars has the largest dust storms of the solar system.
- Mars does not have a magnetic field.