December 3rd, 2014
Over the past decade there have been several missions to Mars involving different kinds of unmanned exploration tools. The most famous being the recent Curiosity rover. 5 years ago there was NASA’s robot/space craft “Phoenix” which also brought us numerous firsts when it comes to knowledge about this fascinating planet. Amazingly, it was ten years ago when the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity landed on the Red Planet. So in the wake of all the years and all that roving around Mars, what are the big discoveries we have collected so far?
5 – Streams: Not long after its dramatic landing on the surface of Mars, Curiosity’s cameras delivered images of what was determined to be an ancient stream bed. One that would have flowed for a very long period of time and at a rate equivalent of a flash flood back on earth; strong enough to move large rocks. And if there was flowing water, that is a major sign of the possibility that life could have existed on the planet.
4 – Magnetic Dust: During its years in service, Spirit observed dust on different parts of the planet that was magnetic. A thin layer of this dust, less than one millimeter thick, seems to cover everything and gets its magnetic properties from the mineral magnetite. The magnetite in Martian dust contains titanium.
3 – Layer of Ice: One of the great moments of the Phoenix mission was when the robot drilled into the ground and discovered a layer of ice. It turns out, a layer of ice below the surface stretches all around the most Northern part of the planet.
2 – Radiation: One of the many questions scientists have had about Mars is- how high are the radiation levels? According to data sent back from Curiosity, the radiation levels on Mars are not any higher than those aboard the International Space Station. This is especially of interest for everyone imagining future manned missions to Mars.
1 – Habitable: So many of the Mars discoveries seem to come back to the question of life and if the planet could have once supported it. Thanks to its array of onboard tools, Curiosity has been able to drill into Martian rocks and analyze what the different layers are made of. One of their first drilling attempts brought back eye-opening results – sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon – all found in the rock. These minerals are the biggest indication ever that, even if was billions of years ago, Mars could have supported some kind of living organisms.
Not bad for a decade of work on a far away planet.
Photo: TJ Blackwell / flickr