Within a few days (August 6, 12:31 a.m. Central), a robotic representative of humanity will once again return to Mars. As the largest rover to date, the Curiosity‘s exploration mission will further help us understand the neighbor planet, including how it might once have been capable of supporting microscopic life. In addition to Mars’ potential history of life, Curiosity will continue past rovers’ efforts to characterize the climate and geology all in preparation for the ultimate goal: sending our species to the red planet. (Read more about the Mars Science goals.)
Stepping a human foot onto the surface of Mars may be several decades away, at least, but I intently hope that my lifetime will be long enough to witness the event. It was a technological marvel when we arrived on our Moon, but it will be a technological inevitability–mixed with an extreme amount of guts–when we arrive on Mars.
Why should we go?
Do we think we can just be lazy and not care for our home planet, and then be ready to hop over to the next when this one runs dry? This, of course, is nonsensical and is not in the back of anyone’s mind who is seriously working toward Mars. Getting to Mars requires extreme technological advancements, so many of which will benefit humanity at home. The potential for discovering new natural resources can benefit future generations of future generations. Discovering life on Mars, the historical footprint of life, or the lack thereof can each have important implications for understanding our place in the Universe. And, ultimately, successfully inhabiting Mars creates the opportunity for our species to survive if a planetary crisis of an extinction-level event occurs here at home.
We are a species who has evolved in such a way that we are now developing the technology to seed our own survival on another planet. This is not an endeavor for one country or one culture alone, but it is an experience for everyone.
You, one step closer to Mars
And, the time to participate in this experience is already here. This first thing to do is to take a stroll outside after sunset on the evening of August 5, 2012. Look west and observe a beautiful celestial triangle comprising Mars, Saturn, and Spica, one of the brightest stars in the sky, which is actually a binary system located only 260 light years away. Then, head back home and prepare for the online webcast presented by NASA TV, starting at 10:30 pm Central.
The Curiosity rover is much larger than the previous rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, so landing this puppy will be a harrowing experience, for sure. However, with a successful touch-down, proof of our technological advancement for sending larger payloads for future missions will be in the bag.
Once the landing is completed, the exciting new data collection can begin. And is there data! And where there is a lot of data to sort through, there are interesting opportunities for citizen scientists. From previous rovers, there are over 250,000 surface images currently being sorted and cataloged to create a massive topological map of the Martian surface. NASA has opened up this mapping project to citizen scientists through the “Be a Martian” online interface. Using your desktop computer or even your mobile device, including Windows Phone, Android, and iPhone, you can individually review images actually taken by a Mars rover and identify characteristic ground and sky features, help stitch together multiple images, count craters, and learn much more about the wonderful new science underway on Mars.
This is certainly an exciting time in solar system exploration (especially with the two Voyager probes nearing the edge of our system right now), and it is important that you take part in these scientific efforts. NASA really does need help from the masses: you don’t require any Congressional budgetary approvals to begin work. Our personal greater appreciation for what is happening on Mars and what potentials exist deep in its red dirt will help bring our planets closer together and the benefits that will soon be discovered closer to reality.