It wasn't long ago that NASA's Curiosity rover touched down on the surface of Mars. But now, the stalwart little buggy has gotten down to business in earnest, having taken a Martian rock for study and begun the breakdown of the rock for analysis.
It's actually a more complex process than it may sound; a lot more than just picking up a rock, the Curiosity rover drilled out a sample from the Martian rock known as “John Klein”, and converted that rock into a fine powder. Having ground up the rock sample in question, the powder then was channeled into two interior laboratories for further study involving what's known as the CheMin, or Chemistry and Mineralogy instrument and the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument. The process took two days—running both Friday and Saturday—and the process recently concluded as data from the instruments confirmed the conclusion.
Naturally, the next big question to answer is just what is in those rocks. This is a big question as scientists desperately try to ascertain whether the rocks contain the necessary components that would indicate the possibility of microbial life on Mars, which would in turn provide an indication of whether or not the planet had larger-scale life on it at any point. Already, Curiosity has unveiled one interesting fact: Mars' red color doesn't go throughout, as John Klein may have been red on the outside, but was gray underneath the red. The gray rock may provide some indication as to how the red color got into Mars in the first place, like the result of iron that oxidized and rusted.
But Curiosity's greatest task still lies ahead, part of a larger two-year mission in which the intrepid little probe is set to head for the Gale Crater, an enormous Martian fixture. On the way, Curiosity took a quick stop at John Klein, before heading over to Glenelg, near a mountain in the Gale Crater area.
There's a lot left for Curiosity to do—which is likely why it's set to take two years to complete its little jaunt—and by the time it's done, we'll likely know much more than we did about the surface of Mars. There's been something of a renewed interest in space lately, from a possible return to the moon to asteroid mining, so seeing Curiosity roll across Mars with the possibility of a real live colony to follow is nothing short of exhilarating. Who knows? We could be sending people there next once the machines prove there's nothing truly disastrous waiting.
The fullest results from Curiosity will take some time to see, but it's definitely worth keeping an eye on, and on the wider implications of its mission as well.
Edited by Brooke Neuman