Illustration by Todd Detwiler
For the past five years, Curiosity, a robot vaguely reminiscent of WALL–E, has been exploring Mars, sending back stunning images and data about the red planet. The rover mission’s mobility scientist, Washington University professor Raymond Arvidson, will share some of the findings at the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference, May 25–29 at Union Station Hotel.
The rover is currently examining Mount Sharp in Gale Crater, where there is strong evidence supporting the theory that a lake was once host to living organisms.
It’s propelled by a six-wheel-drive system, each wheel measuring 50 centimeters in diameter. The front and back wheels rotate on vertical axes that help the machine turn while stationary. Hazcams—cameras mounted on the front and back—view terrain and help guide the robotic arms. The mastcam [mounted on a mast that extends above the rover] takes higher-resolution images in stereo and various colors, and it can provide detailed views of Mars’ surface.
It can take anywhere from three to 20 minutes for radio waves to go between the two planets.
Curiosity is charged by the decay of radioactive plutonium-238, a process that creates energy used to charge its two lithium ion batteries. The rover has detected surface temperatures on Mars ranging from 50 degrees Fahrenheit in the afternoon to minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit at night. The latter can be problematic for the actuators, or motors, so the machine is designed to keep its interior constantly warm.
Curiosity will never come back to Earth. It will simply stay put wherever it stops and cease all communication. It has enough plutonium-238 to last on Mars about 10 Earth years.