On August 5th, the planet Mars will be invaded by an alien spacecraft – a robot probe from planet Earth! On Tuesday evening, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, also known as Curiosity, will arrive at Mars.
If you look west as darkness falls in early August, you’ll see ruddy-colored Mars forming a tight group with golden Saturn and the blue-white star, Spica. Mars has been moving eastward relative to Spica, and fading since April. But, some exciting things are about to happen on Mars! At about 10 PM on August 5th, Curiosity will blaze through the daytime sky in Mars’ eastern hemisphere as it enters Mars’ atmosphere at 13,000 miles per hour. Atmospheric drag, a parachute, and rockets will slow Curiosity’s descent before it’s lowered to the surface by a rocket-borne sky crane.
Mars is the most Earth-like of the other planets in our solar system. It has volcanoes and canyons, polar ice caps, dry river beds, and mysterious emissions of methane gas. Most of what we know about Mars has come from space probes. Today, there are 3 working satellites orbiting Mars, and an active rover on the surface. These will be joined by the car-sized Curiosity Rover, the most advanced geochemical laboratory ever launched into space.
Earlier space probes have shown that the surface of Mars is a dry and cold desert. But, they’ve also provided clues that Mars was once wetter and warmer. Curiosity’s plan is to rove through 15,000 feet of layered rocks on Mount Sharp within Gale Crater. Planetary scientists believe these rocks are an open book on the past 3 billion years of Mars’ history. Curiosity will read this “book” through geological observations and chemical analysis. Perhaps Curiosity will find clues that will lead us to Martian life forms!
Western Slope Skies is produced by members of the Black Canyon Astronomical Society.