At a little over 2 billion US dollars and several generations more advanced than the 2 Viking Landers from the mid 1970s, does NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover truly represent the new era in unmanned robotic space exploration?
By: Ringo Bones
In today’s social network world, the NASA Mars Curiosity Rover seems to have revealed something that I thought vanished long ago – as in American’s jumping for joy in anticipation of an awe-inspiring scientific discovery. With news of viewing parties by elementary, middle-school, high-school and college students across the nation, it seems that the Mars Curiosity Rover is now the most social network inclusive of all of NASA’s unmanned robotic spacecraft. Even the NASA Mission Control guy with a Mohawk haircut managed to earn a sizable social network following previously reserved for reality show participants. But the question now is, will the new Mars Curiosity Rover uncover scientific data about the red planet that the two Viking Landers previously missed?
Back in May 31, 1977, the biological instruments of Vikings 1 and 2 were shut off. Scientists concluded they had found no life on Mars, but was it really due to the “anomalous results” when the Vikings 1 and 2 tested the Martian soil back then? That’s why everyone – as in mere civilian science buffs - interested in the prospect of finding life on Mars are currently rooting for the Mars Curiosity Rover because it is way more advanced than any unmanned robotic spacecraft sent to explore the red planet. Remember, when the Viking Landers were sent to Mars, the meteorite ALH84001 was yet waiting to be found in the icy wastes of Antarctica.
The primary hurdle that makes any unmanned robotic exploration of the red planet a Herculean task is distance. Even though at 186,000 miles per second we send and receive data and signals elsewhere on our planet almost instantaneously, it takes on average 20 minutes to send a data-filled radio signal to Mars – making autonomous function a necessity for unmanned robotic exploration of Mars since the Vikings 1 and 2. Despite these hurdles, the new Mars Curiosity Rover managed to send back standard resolution pictures of the Gale Crater and Mount Sharp – the high resolution pictures take a little longer to send back to Earth because the new rover’s space-worthy little transmitter can only handle so much data at any given time.
According to NASA, the Mars Curiosity Rover is the most advanced robotic space probe they have built so far. Advanced as these robotic spacecraft are, they can’t fully replace the versatility of a human being actually landing and exploring Mars – and remember, when was the last time the American public threw a ticker tape parade for a robotic spacecraft down Madison Avenue for a mission accomplished celebration? Expensive, risky or not, a manned exploration to Mars should be NASA’s next priority.