Mars Curiosity Rover
Launched on November 26th, 2011, NASA’s newest Mars rover Curiosity will soon be touching down on Mars. It’s basically a laboratory on wheels, carrying the biggest and most advanced instruments ever sent to Martian surface, which will be used to work towards the mission’s overarching goal of assessing whether Mars is or ever has been habitable. This means searching for environmental conditions favourable to microbial life, especially in the carefully-chosen landing site: the foot of a mountain in Gale Crater, near the equator, which is expected to contain “hydrated-minerals”—Curiosity will devote much of its time looking for subterranean water, as liquid water is thought to be one of the key requirements of habitability. The rover will test for water by shoving neutrons beneath the surface, since water absorbs them more than other substances. Neutrons have already been used by the Mars Odyssey spacecraft to find what’s believed to be ice reservoirs, but high above the planet, neutrons are in abundance—Curiosity will have to carry its own artificial neutron generator, which will be able to blast 10 million neutrons into the surface per pulse, at a rate of ten pulses per second. This brilliant SUV-sized laboratory will land on August 6, taking its first steps on a planet 137 million kilometres from home.