The landing of NASA’s Mars rover `Curiosity’ on the red planet, on Monday is yet another remarkable technological achievement in the history of man’s quest towards unknown frontiers. It took 14 minutes for the world to get the news confirmed whether the 2.6 billion dollar space craft landed as designed on the red planet. The time lag indicates the distance of the planet from Mother Earth — some 55,000,000 km.
Many such expeditions have in the past brought results to nought after the crafts developed snags in their operating mechanisms, thereby squandering millions of dollars. But, this is a process, and we are lucky that after eight months of travel, Curiosity landed on the planet Mars to a T. The landing is a reward of a decade long work involving the efforts of thousands of engineers and scientists, Needless to say, the initial objective is attained. This however is just the beginning. The planet is one of the brightest objects in the night sky — as a bright red star — easily visible with the naked eye.
Needless to say, the priority of the scientists is to ascertain whether conditions are favorable to sustain life. If so, the next search would be the quest for life on the planet. Though often such explorations are viewed by pessimists as a waste of time, the discoveries and advances in technology that have come along in pursuit for the unknown has resulted in several developments bringing about a great impact in our day to day life. Microwaves would not exist, nor did satellite communications, not to mention medical advances, if man did not dream of going into space.
The planet is popular as a red planet because of the various oxides that come from most of the iron rich rocks found on the planet. These iron rocks come from the volcanoes that were active hundreds of years ago. No wonder, its akin to rust — when certain metals like iron corrode, it forms a red substance.
The first spacecraft ever to make the journey was NASA’s Mariner 4 launched on November 28, 1964 and arrived on Mars on July 14, 1965, successfully taking a series of 21 photographs. Mariner 4's total flight time was 228 days. This was followed by similar expeditions in 1969. But, for almost 50 years, scientists did not make much progress, except following the same pattern of launches of crafts and data being beamed back to earth with not much headway as to the composition of the matter on the surface.
Now that the craft is equipped with ten instruments, it expectedly will analyse Martian rocks, soils and atmosphere. The vehicle has the potential to drive up the mountain and read the history of Mars in the rocky layers. What’s more, it can drive, even land at a precise point, to the extent of burrow right up to an interesting mountain, which would help in not only assisting in determining the chemical composition of rocks and soil, but even ingest samples into an on-board lab for study. Evidently the analysis of rocks and minerals that form only in the presence of water would be the most rewarding find, which would buttress the theory that life once existed on Mars when water flowed on the planet.
As the orbiter landed on Mars, how many school managers in Goa captured the attention of our school children? In a way, it was a historic leap for scientists, but was the moment galvanized before the schooling fraternity? There are scientists in NASA today who were witness to the first photos sent by Viking lander in 1976, as school kids which fired their desire to reach Mars. Likewise, there was excitement all round in Goa when Man landed on Moon, with parents along with their kids (those days Goa had no TV) trying to capture the moment with the naked eye to the accompaniment of a radio broadcast. Such was the enthusiasm. But, today, did our kids even watch the television news on the landing? The school education ought to fire the scientific zeal and imagination of young Goan kids. When the State can boast of a Science Centre and other national scientific institutes apart from scientific associations, there is an urgent need to motivate our kids in this direction.
Now that the second, more important phase of the landing on Mars has begun, the quest will be to determine whether organic matter is evident. If not found, it would simply mean that the environment up there is harsh, which destroys organic matter. But if minerals which thrive on water can be identified —carbonites, clays, sulfates— it would indicate hope of locating water-bearing minerals, which would indicate the aqueous environments on Mars.