Curiosity Prepares for the Big Show

Schematic of the Mars Curiosity Rover
Image Credit: NASA / JPL-CalTech

The next Mars science rover is taking shape at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Curiosity, technically known as the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), was named by Clara Ma, who said:

I selected the name Curiosity and I chose that name because I was really curious about space and our planets and our solar system and I wanted to learn more about it.

The Mars Science Laboratory is scheduled to launch between 25 November and 18 December 2011 aboard an Atlas V 541 and land on the Red Planet in August of 2012. Today, 23 July 2010, Curiosity took its first drive, and the video can be seen here.

Curiosity, unlike the current Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity (operating on solar panels), will carry a radioisotope power system that generates electricity from the heat of plutonium’s radioactive decay. This will give Curiosity the ability to move without consideration of the time of year (winter on Mars means limited solar power). It will enhance the science payload and allow for the exploration of a much larger range of latitudes and altitudes.

Since the two previous Mars rovers (Spirit and Opportunity) have been so successful (operating for more than ten times the 90 day warranty), three of the key elements of the MSL mission are technological:

  • Demonstrate the ability to land a very large, heavy rover to the surface of Mars (which could be used for a future Mars Sample Return mission that would collect rocks and soils and send them back to Earth for laboratory analysis)
  • Demonstrate the ability to land more precisely in a 20-kilometer (12.4-mile) landing circle
  • Demonstrate long-range mobility on the surface of the red planet (5-20 kilometers or about 3 to 12 miles) for the collection of more diverse samples and studies.

These are elements that will become increasingly important as we approach sending manned missions the Phobos, and later to Mars itself.

Curiosity on Mars
Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

The instruments aboard the MSL are designed to accomplish a set of Mission Objectives:

  • Cameras
  • Mast Camera (Mastcam)
  • Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI)
  • Mars Descent Imager (MARDI)
  • Spectrometers
  • Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS)
  • Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam)
  • Chemistry & Mineralogy X-Ray Diffraction/X-Ray Fluorescence Instrument (CheMin)
  • Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) Instrument Suite
  • Radiation Detectors
  • Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD)
  • Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN)
  • Environmental Sensors
  • Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS)
  • Atmospheric Sensors
  • Mars Science Laboratory Entry Descent and Landing Instrument (MEDLI)

Mission Objectives

  • Biological objectives:
  • Determine the nature and inventory of organic carbon compounds
  • Inventory the chemical building blocks of life (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorous, and sulfur)
  • Identify features that may represent the effects of biological processes
  • Geological and geochemical objectives:
  • Investigate the chemical, isotopic, and mineralogical composition of the martian surface and near-surface geological materials
  • Interpret the processes that have formed and modified rocks and soils
  • Planetary process objectives:
  • Assess long-timescale (i.e., 4-billion-year) atmospheric evolution processes
  • Determine present state, distribution, and cycling of water and carbon dioxide
  • Surface radiation objective:
  • Characterize the broad spectrum of surface radiation, including galactic cosmic radiation, solar proton events, and secondary neutrons

Following a heat-shield descent through the Martian atmosphere and a parachute descent, the Mars Science Laboratory will complete its descent under the rocket powered Sky Crane:

Curiosity Sky Crane
Curiosity Descending Under the Sky Crane
Image Credit: NASA

Let us know what you think. What do you want to know about? Post a comment.


100 Best Open Science Courses on the Web

NSS member Neal Rudin offers us his selection of the 100 Best Open Science Courses on the Web.

It’s never too late or too early to start expanding your knowledge of science. With the wealth of free courses available on the web, that goal is easier than ever to achieve and can often be done without even leaving the house. The courses listed here will help you get started, offering resources on a wide variety of scientific fields from those that delve into the laws of the universe to those that explain the chemical reactions taking place in your own kitchen.

Use these courses to learn about both the basics and some of the more advanced topics in physics.

1. Fundamentals of Physics: In this course Professor Ramamurti Shankar will teach you about the basic principles of physics. [Yale]
2. Physics for Humanists: If you’ve always had more of a fondness for the social sciences rather than the natural sciences, this physics course is for you, examining physics issues from a more philosophical viewpoint. [Tufts]
3. Classical Mechanics: Check out this course to learn about physics fundamentals from Newtonian Mechanics to Kinetic Gas Theory. [MIT]
4. Electricity and Magnetism: Those who have a fascination with these subjects will get a chance to learn about everything from lightning to pacemakers in this course. [MIT]
5. Vibrations and Waves: This course will teach you the basics of vibrations and waves with additional lessons in topics like musical instruments to keep things interesting. [MIT]
6. Relativity: Get a better idea of what Einstein was really talking about in this course on special relativity. [MIT]
7. Quantum Physics: Quantum mechanics may sounds daunting, but this course will attempt to explain everything in a way you can understand. [MIT]
8. Particle Physics: Take physics studies to the high energy level in this course that looks at the activities of some of the smallest known particles. [MIT]
9. String Theory for Undergraduates: This entry level course will attempt to break string theory down, though some background in relativity or quantum mechanics is helpful for understanding it all. [MIT]
10. Atomic and Optical Physics: Try out this course to learn some of the principles of light and optics central to modern research projects. [MIT]
11. Introduction to Plasma Physics: Many people don’t know that matter has a fourth state: plasma. In this course you can learn what that is and what it means in physics terms. [MIT]
12. Introduction to Applied Nuclear Physics: While many people around the world rely on nuclear facilities to get power into their homes, few actually know much about how radiation functions. This course will help solve that and offers a range of knowledge on nuclear topics. [MIT]

Give these chemistry courses a try to get a handle on many aspects of the subject.

13. Freshman Organic Chemistry: Use the lessons in this course to teach yourself about the theories and principles of organic chemistry. [Yale]
14. Principles of Inorganic Chemistry: Once you’ve learned about organic chemistry, why not give the inorganic stuff a try with this course? [MIT]
15. Advanced Organic Chemistry: Those who have taken a more basic course in organic chemistry may want to try out the more advanced lessons found here. [MIT]
16. Physical Chemistry: In this course, students will learn about everything from quantum mechanics to chemical bonding. [MIT]
17. Kinetics of Chemical Reactions: Take this course to get some insights into the finer points of the energy produced when substances react with one another. [MIT]
18. Kitchen Chemistry: Chemistry doesn’t just happen in this classroom, as this course on kitchen chemistry proves. [MIT]
19. Principles of Chemical Science: This course is a great introduction to the basic principles of chemistry in both organic, inorganic and biological molecules. [MIT]
20. Organometallic Chemistry: Those who are looking for a challenge can take this course on organometallic transitions. [MIT]
21. Chemistry Laboratory Techniques: If you want to learn how to stay safe and create your own experiments in the chemistry lab, give the helpful video lessons in this course a try. [MIT]
22. Organic Structure Determination: This course will explain how modern chemists unravel the structure of organic molecules. [MIT]
23. Thermodynamics & Kinetics: Check out this course to learn more about equilibrium in systems as well as the impact of chemical reactions. [MIT]

Study cells, systems, plants and more through these free courses.

24. Introductory Biology: Those who want a good overview of the basics of biology will be well served with the material presented in this course. [MIT]
25. Microbiology: Take your study of biology down to the microbial level with this course on infection-causing bacteria and germs. [Tufts]
26. Molecular and Cell Biology: In this course you can learn more about how organic molecules function and get all the info you need on cellular structure and organization. [Berkeley]
27. Developmental Biology: This course will give you the tools you need to learn about how organisms develop, covering both vertebrate and invertebrate systems. [MIT]
28. Photosynthesis: Life from Light: Take a closer look at the process that keeps plants going and keeps them supplying us with oxygen in this course. [MIT]
29. The Fountain of Life: From Dolly to Customized Embryonic Stem Cells: This course will introduce some of the more basic and advanced concepts of genetic engineering and cloning to you. [MIT]
30. Introduction to Bioengineering: Learn both the fundamentals and the research applications of bioengineering through this course. [MIT]
31. Systems Biology: In this course, students can get a more mathematical and analytical way of looking at some of the big questions in modern biology. [MIT]
32. Biological Chemistry: You can mix both chemistry and biology in this course that explains the chemical processes inherent in many forms of life. [MIT]
33. Cellular Neurobiology: Take this course to learn more about the structure and function of the nervous system. [MIT]
34. Topics in Experimental Biology: Learn how to design and evaluate your own biological experiments in this course. [MIT]
35. Sophisticated Survival Skills of Simple Microorganisms: Microorganisms may be small, but they can also be tough, as this course explains by examining their defense mechanisms for stressors in a variety of natural settings. [MIT]

Take a closer look at some of the things going on in the space outside of our planet through these courses.

36. Frontiers and Controversies in Astrophysics: Professor Charles Bailyn explains some intriguing areas of astrophysics including extra-solar planets, black holes and dark matter in this course. [Yale]
37. Elementary Astronomy: Start with the basics in this introductory astronomy course. [Eastern Utah]
38. Exploring Black Holes: General Relativity & Astrophysics: Ever wonder what a black hole looks like? This course will teach you this and more as you explore many of the mysteries and myths surrounding these phenomena. [MIT]
39. Introduction to Astronomy: In this course you’ll get a chance to learn about the physics of the solar system and the universe beyond. [MIT]
40. Modern Astrophysics: Gain a better understanding of why objects in space do what they do with this course on all aspects of astrophysics. [MIT]
41. The Early Universe: This course will begin with how the universe began–with the big bang theory–and continue explaining theories of cosmology up to the present day. [MIT]
42. Cosmology: From radiation to red shifts, this course will explain many phenomena of the known universe. [MIT]
43. Astrophysics: This course is a more advanced take on astrophysics, tackling topics like dark matter and star structures. [MIT]
44. Particle Physics of the Early Universe: If you’ve already taken the other course on the Early Universe, expand your knowledge further with this course on some of the ways that modern particle physics explains things. [MIT]
45. The Solar System: Stay close to home with this course that examines the planets and happenings of our own solar system. [MIT]
46. Extrasolar Planets: Physics and Detection Techniques: This course offers you the chance to learn about new methods of seeking out and identifying planets well beyond the reach of our own solar system. [MIT]

Computer Science
These courses will help you embrace your inner techie.

47. Introduction to Computer Science and Programming: Even if you’ve never been a big programming geek, you can learn some handy fundamentals in this course. [MIT]
48. Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs: In this course you’ll learn some of the basics of how computers and programming work. [MIT]
49. Artificial Intelligence: Try out this course to learn how artificial intelligence is developed and some of the theories behind how it works. [MIT]
50. Mathematics for Computer Science: Like many other branches of science, computer science is largely based on mathematics, and this course will show you the ropes. [MIT]
51. Great Ideas in Theoretical Computer Science: Take a look at some of the more theoretical, though not always practical, ideas in computer science in this course. [MIT]
52. Micro/Nano Processing Technology: Technology is always getting smaller and smaller, and this course explains how it’s even being taken to the nano level. [MIT]
53. Dynamic Systems & Control: Learn how computer systems are built, managed and controlled in this course. [MIT]
54. Theory of Computation: This course will touch on issues in computability theory, language theory and more. [MIT]
55. Computer Graphics: Give this course a try to learn how computer graphics are developed, programmed and implemented. [MIT]
56. Game Theory and Mechanism Design: Here you can see how game theory can be applied to systems like wireless communications networks. [MIT]
57. Ultrafast Optics: Learn how optics are working at literally the speed of light in this course. [MIT]
58. Advanced Topics in Cryptography: Learn what it takes to keep a computer network secure through this course. [MIT]

In these courses you can learn about the processes that shape Earth’s surface.

59. Introduction to Geology: Get an introduction to studying the physical features of the earth in this course. [Eastern Utah]
60. Atmosphere, Ocean and Climate Dynamics: Learn about the physics that determine how the oceans and atmosphere circulate in this course. [MIT]
61. Applications of Continuum Mechanics to Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences: This course will give you some practical, real-life situations in which the continuum theory can be applied. [MIT]
62. The Environment of the Earth’s Surface: In this class, you’ll learn about the basic processes that govern changes in Earth’s surface. [MIT]
63. An Introduction to Fluid Motions, Sediment Transport, and Current-generated Sedimentary Structures: Take this course to learn more about fluid dynamics and how those principles can be applied to erosion, sedimentation and more. [MIT]
64. Basics of Impact Cratering & Geological, Geophysical, Geochemical, Environmental Studies of Some Impact Craters of the Earth: It might not seem like it, but Earth has been bombarded by objects from space and has the impact craters to prove it. This course will take a closer look at those craters. [MIT]
65. Structure of Earth Materials: Diamonds may be beautiful, but have you ever considered where they come from? This course will examine crystal structure and theory more closely. [MIT]
66. Sedimentary Geology: Learn about the process of sedimentation and what can be learned from it in this course. [MIT]
67. Essentials of Geophysics: This course will cover topics like gravity, geomagnetism, seismology, and geodynamics among others to give a more complete picture of geophysics. [MIT]
68. Past and Present Climate: Here you’ll find an introductory course on climate studies, offering a look back in time to see how climates have changed over the centuries as well. [MIT]
69. Surface Processes and Landscape Evolution: Get a better idea of how climate, tectonics and processes like erosion have shaped Earth’s surface in this course. [MIT]
70. Introduction to Seismology: Take this class to find out more about earthquakes and how seismic waves can tell us more about Earth’s interior. [MIT]

Environmental Science
Take one of these courses to learn about the science behind ecology, sustainability and other environmentally focused topics.

71. Fundamentals of Ecology: Learn how an ecosystem functions as a single unit and as individual entities in this course. [MIT]
72. Seminar in Environmental Science: Through this course you can become more knowledgeable about recent research in environmental science. [MIT]
73. Modeling Environmental Complexity: Here you’ll see how some of the more complex phenomena on earth are modeled and understood. [MIT]
74. Environmental Earth Science: Take this course to learn how the environment changes alongside some of the big changes that have happened with Earth’s surface. [MIT]
75. Complexity in Ecology: Here you can learn about issues in the complexity of ecology, looking at past models and coming up with new ways of organizing and obtaining data. [MIT]
76. Ecological Theory: This course requires some intense reading on both past and present theories of ecology. [MIT]
77. Chemicals in the Environment: Toxicology and Public Health: Learn how chemicals released into the environment can have a pretty negative impact on human health from this course. [MIT]
78. Water Quality Control: Here, you’ll learn how to model the distribution of substances into a water supply and the importance of maintaining quality water. [MIT]
79. Planning for Sustainable Development: Through this course you can see new ways that more sustainable communities are being developed. [MIT]
80. Environmental Microbiology: Microorganisms may be small but this course will show you what a big role they play in natural ecosystems. [MIT]
81. Strange Bedfellows: Science and Environmental Policy: Learn how scientific discoveries have pushed environmental policy making forward in this course. [MIT]

Health Science
In these courses you can learn about a wide range of medical issues.

82. Histology: Try out this course to learn about the structures and functions of human tissues and cells. [Tufts]
83. Genetics: Learn how genetic diseases are diagnosed and treated in this course. [Tufts]
84. Nutrition and Medicine: Here you can learn more about the big impact proper nutrition has on the health and well being of individuals. [Tufts]
85. Human Growth and Development: In this course you can learn how humans go from embryo to adult. [Tufts]
86. Principles of Human Disease: From contagious diseases to genetic ones, this course explains the modern understanding of diseases. [MIT]
87. Cancer Biology: From Basic Research to the Clinic: Learn what progress has been made in the fight against cancer in this course. [MIT]
88. Human Reproductive Biology: This course will teach you more than just how babies are made, focusing on the structure, function and even diseases of the reproductive system. [MIT]
89. Gastroenterology: Learn about the chemistry and biology of the digestive system in this course. [MIT]
90. Principles of Pharmacology: Most of us take medicines that are prescribed without giving much thought to how they came to be. This course will teach you how pharmacological agents are developed. [MIT]
91. Introduction to Neuroscience: Take this course to learn about some of the amazing and sometimes surprising ways the brain works. [MIT]
: Learn how artificial intelligence is being used in medical care and diagnosis here. [MIT]
93. Brain Mechanisms for Hearing and Speech: In this course you can learn how your brain takes in information from auditory sources and formulates its own responses through vocal utterances. [MIT]

This assortment of courses covers things like evolution, meteorology and science writing.

94. Principles of Evolution, Ecology and Behavior: Professor Charles Bailyn explains some of the central issues to evolution and why we are the way we are in this course. [Yale]
95. Tropical Ecology and Conservation: This course focuses on methods that can be used to increase conservation efforts in the rainforests of the world. [Tufts]
96. Holographic Imaging: Holography might seem more science fiction than science, but this course will explain some of the fundamentals behind it and show you how it could be used. [MIT]
97. Geobiology: In this course you will investigate the way that life and the Earth itself have evolved side-by-side. [MIT]
98. Building Earth-like Planets: From Nebular Gas to Ocean Worlds: Do you know how planets are formed? This course will explains some of the best theories out there on how the planets came to be. [MIT]
99. Tropical Meteorology: Learn how weather works in some of the wettest places on Earth in this course. [MIT]
100. The Science Essay: Learn how best to write about science for the general public in this course touching on both English and science issues. [MIT]