Mars Curiosity Rover has finally landed in Gale Crater, defiant of the one-in-three chance of success researchers gave her. It took five years of preparation and engineering, 8 – 1/2 months of interplanetary transport, and 350 million miles; but she’s finally arrived, plum and ready to unearth Mars’ secrets. Powered by a radioisotope generator, Curiosity will transmit pictures of the Mars landscape for at least two years (quite probably many more). Ever more importantly, as she is equipped with a gas chromatograph, mass and other spectrometers, atmospheric instrumentation, radiation detectors and more, Curiosity will analyze the surface of Mars for evidence of microbial life, measure background radiation levels, and search for evidence of water on the surface [Mars Science Lab Facts].
All this sounds wonderfully interesting, and stands to keep curious minds occupied analyzing the data for years to come. But this successful landing on Mars means so much more for humankind. The ultimate hope is that Curiosity’s work will enable scientists to successfully plan and execute a manned mission to Mars.
The arrival of humans on Mars presents enormous opportunity for humanity to better its probability of long-term survival. If Mars once harbored, but no longer harbors life, its study can reveal useful clues to into the life cycle of a planet and a future that our own planet could experience. If Mars is currently in an extinction cycle, studying it could lend insight to questions about the extinction cycles experienced on Earth.
If Mars has water – on the surface, under the surface – it opens up a whole new world for humanity. How much Uranium is on Mars? How much Thorium? Rare Earth elements? Boron, lithium, silver, gold? Mars could be awash with resources that could sustain humanity’s future. Does Mars hold the key to a sustainable technological future? Are there ethical issues that arise with the potential exploitation of a neighboring planet that could theoretically sustain life; but is (only currently) lifeless?
Curiosity has just touched the surface. There are so many possibilities laying before us. And so many questions. What is humanity’s next step?