As soon as NASA’s newest six-wheeled rover touched down on the Martian surface, the world was hooked. Those JPL geniuses not only managed to land a robot the size of a small SUV on another planet, they captured the imagination of millions.
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But with all this love and fondness for a rover called ‘Curiosity’ came the inevitable question: Will she come home?
My answer has always been: Of course not! How the heck could that huge robot be shipped back to Earth? It didn’t land on Mars with an open return ticket and it certainly didn’t bring its own return rocket booster!
But it turns out that my “obvious” answer may have been a little hasty. NASA’s Mars mission chief thinks a return trip might be an option for future explorers.
“It is my hope that humans will be sent to Mars in the 2030s, or 2040s, and they will be able to walk up to Curiosity and bring it back, as I am sure there is a museum out there that would love to have it,” said Doug McCuistion, Director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. McCuistion was speaking via a satellite link with Glenelg, a village in the Scottish Highlands, over the weekend.*
Unlike rovers sent before it, Curiosity is powered by a plutonium heat source. Tiny pellets of the radioactive material encased inside a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) provides an uninterrupted flow of electricity to the rover’s instrumentation.
Previous rovers, like the currently operational Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, used solar panels to harvest sunlight for energy, but this form of electricity production is at the mercy of the day/night cycle, dust storms and dust deposits.
Although Curiosity’s planned mission lifespan is 2 years, the RTG energy source could extend its lifespan by 20 years. In that case, could the first manned mission land on Mars while Curiosity is still operational?
McCuistion said that although he could imagine astronauts walking up to Curiosity, the rover’s instrumentation would likely break down before the energy source ran out — if humans did approach the robot, she’d likely be long dead.
For me, although it seems poetic to “bring the rover back” (or “leave no robot behind!”) I’d prefer to leave Curiosity on Mars as a monument to the science she did in the “pioneering days” of Mars exploration.
Curiosity was “built” to be a Martian; she’s right at home. It seems only right it should be her final resting place too — but not for a long while yet.
*Why Glenelg? Glenelg Intrigue is a geologically interesting location on Mars, and was named “Glenelg” after a type of rock associated with Yellowknife in Canada. The region located near Curiosity’s Aug. 5 landing site inside Gale Crater is being named after places in Yellowknife — as an easy naming convention and because geologists believe Yellowknife and Gale Crater geology are of similar ages. Glenelg is a type of rock that was first identified near Glenelg (in Scotland), but is also known to exist in Yellowknife. It is through this fascinating geological relationship that the village was officially twinned with Glenelg (on Mars) on Oct. 20. For some detail behind Glenelg geology, read Jonathan Amos’ great BBC article.
Image: All by itself: a self-portrait of the deck of NASA’s Curiosity rover from the rover’s Navigation camera. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech