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September’s Science on Tap Question

Why send another rover to Mars?
August 29, 2019
Science on Tap Question

2020 Mars rover. Photo Source: NASA


  • Stacy Baker
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The short answer is because space exploration is an ever-evolving field and, quite frankly, it’s hard. It’s hard to travel millions of miles at a time, to study distant phenomena remotely, and extra-terrestrial environments are notoriously hard on terrestrial materials, organic or otherwise, which means rovers don’t run forever. The long answer is that studying the geological evolution and chemical make-up of planets is critical to understanding the processes that shaped those planets and determining if homesteading on them is possible. 

To date, NASA has sent four robotic rovers to Mars: Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity. Each rover had a specific purpose based on mission schedule and current technological capabilities. Each rover also made novel contributions to the investigation of the Red Planet as they relayed information to scientists and engineers back on Earth. Each subsequent rover design incorporated lessons learned from earlier rovers and added upgraded technology to the rovers’ payloads.

For example, the first Mars rover, Sojourner, launched with the Mars Pathfinder in December, 1996. Pathfinder’s mission centered on simply being able to successfully land and launch a rover from 140 million miles away. Sojourner was rather small, about the size of a microwave oven, and carried a modest payload of scientific equipment including an alpha proton X-ray spectrometer (APXS), three cameras, and atmospheric measurement equipment. Sojourner explored Mars for about three months and the PathFinder mission officially concluded September 27, 1997, after sending over 17,000 images back. 

In comparison, Curiosity, the Mars rover that launched with the Mars Science Lab in 2011, is the size of small SUV and was sent to discover whether Mars is, or ever was, capable of sustaining microbial life. Like Sojourner, Curiosity also carries cameras, but its photo and video-recording capability far outweighs that of Sojourner and includes a whopping 17 image-recording devices. Curiosity also packs an APXS, but boasts an impressive collection of newer, high tech analytical equipment as well, including spectrometers, radiation detectors, atmospheric and environmental sensors, and the Lab’s very own ChemCam. Almost eight years later, Curiosity continues to roam Mars and send new information home. 

With each new rover, scientists are able to tease out more details about Mars’ history and environment and what it might take for people to live and work there. Indeed, they’ve discovered that Mars is far from being just our arid, dusty-red neighbor. 

Please see the Bradbury’s webpage for more information about Lab instruments aboard the Curiosity Rover.  

For more information on Lisa Danielson’s research, please the Center for Space and Earth Science webpage.