Why Do We Send Mars Rovers?

There are many reasons for sending Mars Rovers into the wild, but do you know them? It's a good question because the budget for a Mars Lander or a rover is huge: sending the duo Spirit Opportunity cost 820 Million dollars for the original mission. And while nations around the world are fighting budget deficits, President Obama raised the budget for Space Exploration by 6 billion dollars over the next 5 years. Is there life on Mars? What is the history of Mars? What is the weather like these days? And how Mars robots can help us answer these questions?

1) Life On Mars?

As Bowie said 40 years ago, "is there life on Mars?" may be the best selling show... At least for Mars Exploration. As we struggle to understand where we come from, Mars may hold clues that were destroyed billions of years ago on Earth by the natural geological cycle. Has life ever existed on Mars? Was it the same as the life on Earth? Is there still some primitive life forms surviving underground in some cave. And finding life on Mars would bring a huge amount of knowledge about the possibilities and the origin of Life.

The Viking Lander was looking for life on Mars

Viking Lander
Image From Nasa

The search for Life has been present in almost every mission to Mars, in different forms. Viking had several experiments to detect life on Mars. And today, some scientists are still claiming the rover found life in Mars' desert. Indeed, one experiment to find elements usually found in life cells was positive, while the other experiment, looking for organic materials (the fundamental elements of life as we know it) was negative. These contradictory results mostly prove that we don't really know how to detect life.

In the next mission, the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity were looking for water, since water is such a fundamental element of life on Earth. And water they found, just under the surface, mixed in the dust of the Martian sand.

2) The History of Mars

When did Mars become a dry desert? When were the last volcanoes active on Mars? How much water was there in the past? Mars Rovers are like little geologists, looking for answers about the past. Mars is like a cousin of the Earth, half as small but made of the same elements. Knowing the past of Mars may help scientists understand the past of our own planet.

The two Mars Exploration Rovers were equipped with 2 spectrometers and a microscope. They were used to study the composition of rocks. From the results, scientists can guess how the rocks were formed, and then understand the ancient geology of the planet.

But just like the past, the present climate of Mars is important. Indeed, the more we know about the climate, the more we can predict the danger for the robots. And maybe one day the humans that will explore the surface. While it is usually not the role of Mars Rovers, their orbiters always scan the atmosphere and the surface for specific data.

The Mars Science Laboratory, that will be launched in 2018, will also carry tools to study the atmosphere of the planet, study rocks with lasers and spectrometers, find organic particles and a lot more cool stuff to study our little cousin.

Mars Rover Curiosity: a science lab in itself

Mars Science Laboratory
Image From Nasa

3) Preparing a manned mission to mars?

A manned mission to Mars represents many challenges, and Mars Rovers can help us to make it right the first time. For example, while living in space has been well studied in International Space Station (ISS), the landing on Mars is not ready.

Landing on Mars is different than the Earth or the Moon, and only a few mission succeeded for sending rovers. And unless you want to arrive on Mars the same way (falling straight to the ground with only massive airbags to soften the shock), there may be some training to do there. Actually, the next Nasa robot to go to Mars is too big for this technique and will try a new way of landing.

The next step would be about coming back from Mars. In this scenario, the Mars Rover must bring a rocket with him. Once the robot has collected some interesting sample (dust, stone, water...), it fills the rocket with it. Then the rocket should take off to the orbiter that would bring it back home. This is a technical challenge in itself and could be a very good training for preparing a manned mission to Mars.

For more on Mars Exploration Robots:

Basic features of all Mars Rovers.
Discover the Curiosity Rover: the latest Mars Rover
Focus on the Curiosity Rover nuclear battery

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