Humanity lands Mars! Robot Chemist Geologist looks life

Humanity lands on Mars! Robot Chemist and Geologist looks for life

12:27 PM, 6th August 2012
Humanity lands on Mars! Robot Chemist and Geologist looks for life
About two hours after landing on Mars and beaming back its first image, NASA's Curiosity rover transmitted a high-resolution image of its new Martian home, Gale Crater (C) NASA pictures beamed by Curiosity.

Taking a big leap, NASA's Curiosity has finally landed on the Mars surface! The mission is a big deal from a chemistry perspective, because Curiosity essentially is a robot chemist, performing tests to determine whether Mars holds life or supported it in the past. Even if it’s just for a short while, Curiosity turns the eyes of the world toward chemistry!

The Mars Curiosity Rover is a mobile science lab. Its essentially a robot chemist and geologist that will analyze samples to determine whether Mars has life or whether it supported life in the past. This Rover picks up where its predecessors left off. It isn’t just looking for water! Curiosity will take a close look at samples, to determine whether Martian soil contains organic molecules that are associated with microbial life. Here’s a look at the equipment on Curiosity and some of the tests Curiosity can perform.

Robot Arm

A distinctive feature of Curiosity is its robot arm. The arm extends about 7 feet (2 metres). At the end of the arm, there is a drill and a sieve, so Curiosity can obtain hard-to-get samples or filter its specimens. More than any other Rover, Curiosity will reach out and touch Martial soil and rocks, bringing in samples for a closer look. The Rover can send photographs of samples back to Earth or can perform numerous tests.

Robot Head with Laser Eyes

The Rover’s “head” extend about 6.9 feet (2.1 metres) and supports a normal high-def stereo color camera/video camera (MastCam) and also a laser that can vapourize a sample from 23 feet (7 meters) away and then determine its elemental composition based on what it sees. The laser/camera combination is named ChemCam.


Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) is Curiosity’s weather station. Weather forecasts will help Curiosity steer clear of Martian storms and may help the Rover identify points of interest for exploration.

Cameras, Cameras, Cameras

Curiosity has 17 cameras, capable of photographing samples across the spectrum.


Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer. This instrument, located on Curiosity’s “hand,” identifies the chemical elements in rocks.


CheMin is short for “Chemistry and Mineralogy”. This is an analytical instrument located in the body of Curiosity that applies X-ray diffraction and fluorescence to analyze the mineral composition of samples. These minerals can include those that would form as a result of exposure to water.


SAM is short for Sample Analysis at Mars. SAM is another instrument in Curiosity’s body. This one detects organic molecules, which are considered to be the building blocks of carbon-based life, using a mass spectrometer, a gas chromatograph, and laser spectrometer.


The Mars Hand Lens Imager or MAHLI is a focusable camera that takes colour photos of objects as small as 12.5 microns across.


DAN is short for Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons. This is an active/passive neutron spectrometer designed to search for water and ice up to 2 metres below the Martian surface. DAN fires a beam of neutrons into the soil and times their return speed. The premise here is that the return rate is changed if the beam encounters water in any form.


RAD is the Radiation Assessment Detector, which will characterize the nature and amount of radiation on the surface of Mars. Data from RAD will help plan future unmanned and manned missions, keeping equipment and people safe from solar radiation, cosmic radiation and ambient radiation from the Martian atmosphere and soil.

Mobile Lab

The Rover isn’t tied to one place. If Curiosity sees an area it wishes to explore more closely, it can simply relocate.

Telecommunications Array

There isn’t much point in collecting data if it doesn't make it back to Earth! Curiosity has a complex communications array that will relay its findings to Earth’s Deep Space Network via the Mars Orbiters.

© Anne Marie Helmenstine PhD, an author and consultant with a broad scientific and medical background.



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