Mars Rover inspires wonder … and budget cuts

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You couldn’t have missed it. Curiosity — NASA’s $2.5 billion dollar planetary rover that was years in the making — was an awesome demonstration of NASA’s engineering prowess, and a reminder that there are still entire worlds left for mankind to explore. NASA’s ability to captivate the imagination and push what is thought to be possible, not to mention how they’ve advanced applied science fields of all sorts, has been amazing in the past half century.

Yet, the investigation of Mars is beckoning in a new era of space exploration — and NASA’s role in this new era is far from guaranteed. Competition from other countries threatens to usurp NASA’s role in leading a decades-long study of the red planet.

President Obama has praised NASA for the success of its Curiosity rover, and has gone on to say he thinks humans will be able to orbit Mars by the year 2030. But actions speak louder than words, and Obama has proposed that NASA’s Mars exploration program’s budget be slashed from $587 million to $360 million next year.

Meanwhile, the European Space Agency, and its Russian equivalent Roscomos, have begun making plans to carry out their own exploration program, ExoMars, without the collaboration of the United States. Although NASA was one of the original partners of the program, budget overruns from their James Webb Space Telescope project and Obama’s proposed budget have heightened fears that they will have to pull out of the program entirely. Although the launch of the European and Russian program has had serious difficulties and delays, ExoMars plans to have two rover launches to Mars by the end of the decade.

Obviously, getting a rover as complex as Curiosity to Mars is no small matter, and its fruition was a result of not only a large amount of funding, but teams of hundreds of scientists collaborating on years of work, and with some of the rover’s equipment being provided by Spain and Russia.  The rover Curiosity is the most advanced planetary rover ever built.  It shares some elements with the two previous Mars rovers — Spirit and Opportunity — such as six-wheel drive, a specially designed suspension system that allows the rover to climb over obstacles keeping all six wheels on the ground, and mounted cameras that help scientists at NASA provide the rover with directions and target sites.

The landing site, Gale Crater, was chosen by a team of scientists from a list of over 30 potential landing sites.  The Crater has been shown to have exposures of minerals that suggest the crater likely contained water at some point in its history.  The site was also chosen based on how easily Curiosity could be safely landed on it.

Curiosity is unique in its ability to gather rock and soil samples on Mars, and then distribute them to different analytical instruments with which it is equipped.  A gas chromatograph, a mass spectrometer, and a turntable laser spectrometer allow the rover to identify a range of organic compounds, as well as the ratios of different isotopes. Curiosity also comes equipped with an X-ray diffraction and fluorescence instrument, which are designed to quantify the amounts of minerals found in rocks and soils on Mars. Of all the equipment on Curiosity, this is only the tip of the ice cap (no icebergs on Mars!). It carries with it numerous other high-resolution cameras and more analytical equipment, including a device called ChemCam — a laser that can vaporize thin layers of material from Martian rocks and soil (this serves to both identify what makes up the target, as well as to illuminate an area that can be photographed using Curiosity’s telescope).

All this equipment is designed first and foremost to provide clues as to whether Mars does or ever has had the ability to harbor life, according to the Rover’s page on the NASA website.  This is the question that NASA’s multi-billion dollar project has set out to answer, and the question that will hopefully keep future generations looking skyward. Such a discovery would fundamentally change the way we must look at ourselves in relationship to the rest of the universe.

Yet, will the quest to find microbes on Mars whet American appetites for discovery the same way putting a man on the moon did in the 1960s? Curiosity certainly grabbed the attention of a great number of people, but what will happen if the rover’s results come back inconclusive?  What will happen if the rover finds no new evidence that there may have once been the potential for life on Mars?

With NASA straining their budget to complete their current projects, and under the gun from America’s politicians to keep costs low, the balance in the global race to cultivate Mars may be tilting. Fifteen European countries are in negotiations, collaborating on plans to build what would be the largest optical telescope on earth, aptly named the European Extremely Large Telescope.  The Telescope, which would be built on the mountain Cerro Armazones in northern Chile, would be able to collect at least twelve times more light than today’s largest optical telescope and could be used to search for alien planets and to study dark matter and dark energy.

And recently, a Britain-based consortium of eight countries decided that what will be the world’s most powerful radio telescope, the also aptly named Square Kilometre Array (SKA), will be built in South Africa, with collaboration from Australia and New Zealand. This telescope will be able to detect radio energy from distant parts of the universe using a wide array of dishes (a square kilometer’s worth in this case). The telescope will be 50 times more sensitive and 10,000 times faster processing data than any other telescope on the planet, and will help to answer questions about the magnetism of the Milky Way and of other galaxies as well.

This global effort of investigating the cosmos will help mankind advance what we know about the universe around us. However, NASA will first have to answer a question back on Earth: what role will the United States have in this newly global endeavor? Clearly NASA has led the way in the hunt for habitable alien planets, but if funding for such programs is cut in this country, perhaps Europe or Russia will have an edge in resources and the United States will serve as a partner, or simply a contributor to an international space program like ExoMars.

This is not to say that NASA will not still be a leader in what it does. The Hubble Telescope, and the future James Webb Space Telescope, are unrivaled achievements. The United States is also heavily involved in the International Space Station, which may be able to foster commercial space travel in the near future. Curiosity was a huge success without a doubt, but as the project comes closer to completion, it may mean a turning point for America’s space program, and time for NASA to decide how to utilize its time and funding in the future.

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