(Photo: REUTERS / NASA)
Man will receive further information about Mars once NASA’s rover Curiosity reaches the so-called red planet in August next year, by which time Australia will celebrate a new milestone in Astronomy.
NASA will try to find out if the Red Planet ever had life and what made it "hostile" for life with two new missions, one that will roam the surface and another that will orbit the planet and dip briefly into its upper atmosphere.
The first mission is the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) featuring the Curiosity, the largest and most advanced rover ever sent to the Red Planet Equipped with multiple cameras and instruments including Goddard's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite, Curiousity is scheduled to be launched in late November or December 2011.
SAM will look for evidence of water, carbon and other proof of life in Martian soil and atmosphere in the hope of discovering whether Mars ever had the potential to support life, NASA said in a statement.
The other mission is the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) which will be launched in late 2013. The MAVEN will orbit Mars sole to understand the Red Planet's upper atmosphere and to help determine what caused Mars to be inhospitable to for life.
"The ultimate driver for these missions is the question, did Mars ever have life?" says Paul Mahaffy of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
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According to Mahaffy, the missions will also answer questions whether microbial life even originated on Mars and what happened to it afterwards.
Recent findings show that the Martian surface is incredibly hostile for life. According to NASA, the Red Planet's atmosphere does little to shield the ground against radiation from the Sun and space as harsh chemicals permeate the soil. Water, on the other hand, cannot exist as it freezes out in subzero temperatures.
"Both MAVEN and Curiosity/SAM will determine the history of the Martian climate and atmosphere using multiple approaches," said MAVEN Principal Investigator Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics.
"Curiosity will focus on geology and minerals to determine if the environment on Mars in the distant past had the potential to support life," said Mahaffy. "It will be digging in the dirt trying to understand the habitability issue in a place where water may have flowed, where there could have been a lake. Habitability is also the basic theme of MAVEN-it will be trying to understand from the top down how the atmosphere evolved over time and how it was lost, which ties back to how clement it was early on."
MAVEN is expected to reach Mars in 2014. By then, SAM on board the Curiosity rover will have made similar measurements from Gale crater, which will help guide the interpretation of MAVEN's upper atmosphere measurements.
The MAVEN project, which is led out of the University of Colorado and managed by NASA Goddard ,is part of NASA's Mars Scout program, funded by NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C.
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