What will NASA's Mars rover do when it gets there? (+video)
If NASA's Mars Curiosity rover lands successfully, it will look for signs of habitability. The rover will also keep an eye on the weather.
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“The high-energy particles can generate secondary, lower-energy particles when they interact with molecules of gas in the atmosphere,” Vasavada said.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Exploring Mars with Curiosity
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Most particles in cosmic rays are protons, which can generate secondary gamma rays or neutrons, he added. This process also happens on Earth, but higher in the atmosphere and far away from the surface.
According to Vasavada, these energetic particles can ionize molecules inside humans, breaking the molecules apart and damaging cells. Essential complex organic molecules such as DNA could be affected.
“How much damage a particle does is not simply related to how energetic it is,” he said. “Heavier, less energetic particles produced as secondaries may be rarer than protons to an astronaut, but can do just as much total damage.”
Weather forecasting will also be needed for astronauts roaming on Mars. In a first since the Viking vanguard missions of the 1970s, MSL will feature a full meteorology package called the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station. The Spanish–built REMS will run for at least five minutes every hour, night and day.
To capture the speed and direction of the wind, and the air's temperature and humidity, REMS will use electronic sensors on two booms stretching out horizontally from a camera mast mounted on the rover.
Ultraviolet radiation will be measured using a sensor stuck on the rover's deck. Some of the wavelengths it will watch for are the same ones sensed by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter flying above, providing a more complete record of what's happening on Mars.
Inside the rover, an air pressure sensor will taste the air outside through a tube with a small opening to the atmosphere. Radiation-sensitive electronics controlling REMS will also stay inside Curiosity to protect them from the elements.
Through coordinating MSL's weather and radiation sensing with what is seen from above, NASA expects a better picture of what Mars looks and feels like, making it easier for humans to get there.
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