Life On Mars – Day 51

By Chris Thompson

Across the Margin cranks up the voltage and points its high-powered antennas towards Mars…

Curiosity, a nuclear-powered, SUV-sized robot packed with enough gadgetry to make a Swiss-Army knife jealous, is currently gearing up to do all manner of extraordinary science on the red, dusty sands of Mars. And after incredibly surviving a harrowing, thrill-laden, descent by means of unproven technology–affectionately referred to as “The Seven Minutes of Terror” –Curiosity has now spent the last fifty days acclimating itself to its new home, Gale Crater.

This massive crater, formed by an asteroid strike some 3.5 billion years ago, is of particular interest to NASA and us here at Across the Margin, as it appears to have once been filled with water. And water, as we Earthlings appreciate, is a key component to life. And life–especially microbes–can sometimes become preserved, trapped in sedimentary layers of clays and sulfites, both of which are byproducts of water. And guess what friends? Gale Crater is rife with these deposits! Like delicious geological swirls of caramel and chocolate running through your crater-sized bowl of ice cream, Curiosity’s new home wears its history of water in these layers. By meticulously examining the make-up of the surrounding rocks, and characterizing the composition of these clay deposits, Curiosity can begin to provide clues as to whether Mars could have once harbored life.

So as our rover slowly re-awakens, methodically shrugging off the last two years of interplanetary slumber, its components have started coming to life, powering up in their own unique and deliberate ways. Some parts have started stretching out their aching joints. Others are breathing in and sampling Mars’s thin atmosphere while others are digging their eager feet into Mars’s rust-colored sands. And some are opening their brilliant electronic eyes, taking in a whole new world and truthfully sharing with us all that they perceive.

To prepare for its two-year mission of exploration, possibly culminating in a summit of the 5.5km high Mount Sharp, a gigantic mound of eroded sedimentary layers bulls-eying Gale Crater1, Curiosity has been systematically testing and retesting it’s plethora of truly remarkable scientific hardware. Two scientific instruments of particular interest and with fun science-y names us nerds love: the Mars Hand Lens Imager2 and the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrophotometer3, have passed preparatory tests and are ready to get down to work. And over the coming days that work will mean that Curiosity is all set to reach out and touch Jake Matijevic.

If your confused by that last part let me explain. Jacob “Jake” Matijevic was a chief engineer for Curiosity’s surface operations systems and he sadly passed away a few days ago on Aug. 20, at age 64. During his long tenure at NASA he was known as an innovator and rose to become chief engineer for the various rovers that preceded Curiosity: Sojourner, Spirit, and Opportunity. So let’s all just agree here and now that he was kinda’ a big deal.

So in honor of Mr. Matijevic’s contributions to space exploration, Curiosity’s research team has named an odd, football-sized, pyramid-shaped rock after him. And this rock, just a few feet away from Curiosity’s current position, and half-way from the rover’s landing site4, will be the first object that Curiosity will touch with it’s instrument-laden robotic arm.

This rock will be analyzed in a manner that I doubt the real Jacob Matijevic ever was. It will have a laser fired at it, it’s chemical make-up sniffed out by the ChemCam5. It will be poked, prodded, viewed in over 6000 different wavelengths of ultraviolet, visible and infrared light. Photographed a thousand times from a thousand different angles and with a thousand different filters. I exaggerate…a bit. But its examination will be extensive. Precise. Deliberate. I expect noting less from NASA and the brain trust charged with planning and executing Curiosity’s mission.

And so, as I wait for NASA’s news conference later today–where Curiosity’s current findings in Gale Crater will be front and center–I reflect on the lives of the two Jake Matijevic’s. One–a man–who’s history I know well and who was instrumental in bringing robotic exploration to Mars and one–a rock–who’s history I cannot wait to learn for the first time.

And if today we touch a rock and then tomorrow we touch some ochre-tinged clay, then maybe next month we touch a microbe and then maybe next year we touch a purple-glowing slime, undulating rhythmically in the protective shadows of a boulder and the next thing you know the universe has suddenly gotten a whole lot smaller and we finally stop feeling so alone.

I could get behind that….

  1. The layering in the central mound that is Mount Sharp suggests it is the surviving remnant of an extensive sequence of deposits. Some scientists believe the crater filled-in with sediments and some of the lower sediment layers may have originally been deposited on a lake-bed. Awesome! For those of us readers who have ever climbed a mountain and been awe-struck by the view, imagine what Curiosity will behold upon its summit. Oh to see with those eyes… []
  2. Or MAHLI, NASA loves acronyms. []
  3. APXS, another acronym for NASA–which is itself an acronym…OK we’re doing an acronym drinking game now…Go! []
  4. Affectionately named Bradbury Landing, don’t get me started on how much that makes my heart swell. []
  5. Chemistry Camera, basically two instruments in one; a laser that can vaporize rock from 23 feet away and then “sniff” it’s chemical composition by observing the spectrum of light emitted by the glowing vaporized rock and a micro-telescope to provide high-detail images of the targeted areas. First off….holy-shit! How do I get one of these? And second…holy shit! []

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