Curious About Curiosity

NASA made history earlier this week when it landed a rover on Mars. The rover, named Curiosity, is about as big as a small car and powered by plutonium, which has the potential to keep Curiosity operating for decades. Getting Curiosity onto Mars was no small feat. The rocket transporting the rover was travelling at a speed of 13,000 miles per hour, and had to slow down relatively quickly in order for the 25-foot-long cables to deliver the one-ton rover to the surface of Mars. Though it isn’t very large, Curiosity is bigger than previously-used rovers; onboard is the most sophisticated mobile lab that has ever been sent to explore another planet.

What Will It Do?

Curiosity landed in a crater that is 96 miles large. Over the next two years, it will travel around this crater looking for evidence that life did – or does! – exist on Mars. Cameras mounted on the mobile lab will record images and send them back to earth. (You can view these pictures on NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Image Gallery.) Curiosity’s mission will include using a rock-vaporizing laser called ChemCam to drill into rocks in the area, and collect samples of dust and gravel. A Radiation Assessment Detector will assess radiation conditions on Mars, something that is important for future human exploration of the planet.

In the Classroom

When school starts in a few weeks, teachers can use the Curiosity landing as a great way to teach a variety of topics. They can teach about the history of space exploration. Of interest is the fact that the United States is the only country to have landed a spacecraft on Mars. In fact, NASA has done this successfully in seven out of eight attempts. Although other countries haven’t landed any equipment on Mars, Curiosity’s mission is certainly an international collaboration. Spain’s Ministry of Education is measuring atmospheric pressure, humidity, winds, and other data. And Russia’s Federal Space Agency is measuring subsurface hydrogen. In addition to learning about the history of space exploration, students can also pretend to be scientists, using the pictures captured by Curiosity to imagine what questions NASA scientists will be asking. What is the gravel made of? Is there evidence of life? What does that evidence look like? What, besides rock, gravel, and the crater, exists on Mars? Lastly, teachers can use Curiosity as part of their lessons on the solar system, and Mars in particular. NASA’s “Mars at a Glance” provides a helpful overview of basic facts.

Teachers, how will you use Curiosity’s mission in your classrooms? Let us know in the comments!


Sources

Chang, Kenneth. “Curiosity Rover Lands Safely on Mars.” The New York Times. 6 August 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/06/science/space/curiosity-rover-lands-safely-on-mars.html?_r=1

nasa.gov

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