There is more, adds Meyer. Our knowledge about life's appearance on our own planet is abysmal. Billions of years of biological, chemical, meteorological and geological activity on Earth have obliterated all evidence of its origins. "We do not know where it started, how it started, when it started, or what biochemical precursors led to its appearance," Meyer points out.
By contrast, on Mars, life may have flourished for only a very brief period before being extinguished so that signs of its existence may well have been preserved in the planet's dead dust. Their discovery would be like finding biological snapshots frozen in time. "If we can find evidence of organisms' first appearance on Mars, we will be provided with a cookbook for the ingredients of life itself," says Meyer.
The prospects of future scientific excitement emanating from Mars certainly look good, both from Curiosity and from the robot rovers that are scheduled to follow in its wheel-tracks. But for all the wonderful science that is being done there, it is simply the presence of Curiosity, with its sophisticated cameras and detectors, on the planet that provides the greatest satisfaction for those involved in its operations. "I head home after a shift working with Curiosity and sometimes see Mars in the night sky," says Jandura. "The next day I am back at JPL looking at images taken of the Martian surface that have just been sent back by Curiosity. I can see the planet from the rover's perspective and it is utterly thrilling to know that it is there."
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In a nondescript shed on a minor road near Stevenage railway station, researchers have built the ultimate, out-of-this-world facility. Sand has been spread over the floor of a large hall; red, sandstone boulders have been littered on top; and on the surrounding walls, photographs of Mars's surface have been pasted together to form a complete background landscape. Stand in the middle and you could be on the Red Planet - were it not for the breathable atmosphere and substantial gravity.
However, the real attraction of this alien experience is not its extraterrestrial decoration but a six-wheeled vehicle whose binocular cameras, perched on a five-foot-high central control rod, gives it more than a passing resemblance to Wall-E, the eponymous robot star of the Pixar cartoon. This is ExoMars, the European robot rover scheduled to succeed Curiosity in 2018. The two craft have similar designs, a metal skeleton frame fitted with six wire-rimmed wheels. However, ExoMars possesses one crucial difference: it will be able to drill two metres down into the Martian soil. Curiosity can penetrate only a few centimetres.
"Mars is battered by intense ultraviolet radiation," says
Due to launch constraints, the ExoMars rover (pictured) being built at Stevenage by the European aerospace company Astrium is much lighter than Curiosity, however. The former will weigh 300kg, a third of Curiosity's weight. As a result, thin solar panels will have to be used to provide power, in contrast to the heavy nuclear generator fitted on Curiosity, a lack of power that puts pressure on ExoMars's designers.
"At night, temperatures on Mars can drop to -120C," says Boyes. "At those temperatures, the craft's electronics can suffer irreparable damage so we have to find clever ways to keep them warm. We will need to charge up a battery to provide night heating and make sure key electronics are insulated - while not adding to the rover's weight."
All these different designs will be tested in Astrium's
ExoMars was originally scheduled to be a European-US collaboration until
The relief experienced by
Boyes was more diplomatic. "It's a worry," he admits. "But then any mission to Mars is a worry. Hopefully we will get the success we feel we deserve."
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Curiosity is launched atop an Atlas 5 rocket from
Landforms on Mars, an image taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) flying onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission.
A STAR IN THE MAKING
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