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Curiosity about 'Curiosity'

Curiosity about 'Curiosity'

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By: Martin Sigalow As NASA’s new rover Curiosity touched down on Mars on August 6th, the world was transfixed by the first multicolor pictures of its favorite science fiction obsession. Although not the first vehicle landed on Mars, Curiosity is certainly the most scientifically well endowed; its own mobile laboratory, complete with a sky crane landing system, mineral analyzing X-rays, chemical analyzers that search for organic molecules, and even a color camera, the one ton rover blows any previous data collection efforts out of the water. [1] But this new addition to the Martian landscape has benefits beyond scientific research. Indeed, Curiosity has a wide array of implications for domestic, foreign, and possibly galactic policy. I will discuss four of them here.

First, this landing reaffirms the primacy of United States.[2] The United States is the undisputed space leader in the world. NASA has proved itself superior to every other nation’s space program in terms of successful explorations and missions, most notably by pasting the next closest nation, Russia, by a huge margin.[3] In terms of prestige, space travel is the ultimate global status symbol, typically used by rising up and coming powers, like China, Israel, and Mexico to symbolize their prestige relative to their neighbors. Indeed, India announced a little more than a week after Curiosity’s landing that it would be sending a space mission to Mars.[4] NASA’s mission is a reaffirmation of the most successful version of American policy, and serves as a reminded to the rest of the world, especially after the Higgs Boson discovery that America still rules the cosmos.

Second, Curiosity’s landing helps galvanize interest for science education. Young children watching images of NASA dropping a one ton rolling laboratory onto the surface of another planet with a giant crane clearly has a significant effect on interest in the sciences. Similar Mars exploration programs, like Viking, have empirically incentivized young scientists to choose science as a career path. [5]This landing was highly publicized enough that teachers can use it as an important discussion point or example of how great science is, which will help America retain (or retake, depending on one’s point of view) its paramount position in the scientific pecking order.

Third, Curiosity’s purpose is primarily to find past or present signs of life on Mars, unlike its technological inferior predecessors whose data collection efforts were primarily geological. [6] Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars, or SAM kit, is the first mass spectrometer designed to detect for organisms since 1976, can conclusively determine whether the samples it collects from soil and rocks are organic molecules. [7] Scientists have already used information gathered from curiosity to determine that life is at least more likely to host or have hosted life. The Curiosity discovery that Mars appears to have plate tectonics means that Mars is likely to have supported (or, even better, currently does support) life at some point during its history; the type of chemical operations involved in plate tectonics produce conditions favorable to life production, like water cycling between parts of the planet.[8] The verdict about the presence of life on Mars will have a great impact either way. If Mars has life, it greatly boosts the chances that there will be life elsewhere in solar system and beyond. Conversely, if Mars has no life, then it lends credence to the idea that the many life hospitable worlds we’ve detected throughout the cosmos might not be as likely as we thought to contain organisms. [9] Either way, the Curiosity test results will have a significant impact on how humanity constructs its space programs in the future.

Fourth, experimentation by Curiosity on Mars may provide an ideal are to run tests to help understand our climate. Experimentation in another atmosphere could highlight facts about our atmosphere taken for granted or ignored in current earthbound experimentation. Comparing and contrasting our atmosphere with another potentially life-supporting atmosphere for the first time has a strong potential to yield unique insights into the essence of our climate. Humanity, faced with a slew of environmental problems, such as overconsumption, drought, and ocean acidification, should consider this rover a golden opportunity to fill in data gaps left by inconclusive experimentation.[10]


[1] Wray, James, “5 Reasons to be Excited About Curiosity,” CNN, August 8, 2012, accessed August 15, 2012,  http://fox2now.com/2012/08/08/5-reasons-to-be-excited-about-curiosity/

[2] Brown, Eryn, “Is Exploring Mars Worth the Investment,” Phys, July 31, 2012, accessed August 17, 2012, http://phys.org/news/2012-07-exploring-mars-worth-investment.html

[3] Ibid

[4] Buncombe, Andrew, “One More on the way to Mars,” nzHerald, August 17, 2012, accessed August 17, 2012, http://www.nzherald.co.nz/technology/news/article.cfm?c_id=5&objectid=10827475

[5] Gallagher, Vincent, “State of Education: Learning from the Curiosity rover,” Central NY, August 17, 2012, accessed August 17, 2012.http://centralny.ynn.com/content/features/595480/state-of-education--learning-from-the-curiosity-rover/

[6] Huestis, David, “’Curiosity’: a New Era of Mars Exploration Begins,” GoLocal July 27, 2012, accessed August 16, 2012, http://www.golocalworcester.com/lifestyle/curiosity-a-new-era-of-mars-exploration-begins/

[7] Ibid 1

[8] Franzen, Carl, “Mars’ Plate Tectonics Make Life More Likely, Scientist Says,” Talking Points Memo, August 13, 2012, accessed August 15, 2012, http://idealab.talkingpointsmemo.com/2012/08/mars-plate-tectonics-make-life-more-likely-scientist-says.php

[9] Ibid 2

[10] Profeta, Tim, “The Climate Post: Mars Rover Can Help Us Better Understand Climate Change on Earth,” Huffington Post, August 9, 2012, accessed August 17, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tim-profeta/the-climate-post-mars-rov_b_1761070.html?utm_hp_ref=green

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