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The red planet

The NASA Curiosity rover is currently on the surface of Mars producing new and exciting results about one of our nearest neighbouring planets. Recently Curiosity has become the first mission to drill into rocks on the surface of Mars. Analysis of the samples collected has shown that the rock contains clay minerals that were either formed by, or were substantially altered by, neutral water. This result is the latest in a long history of studies of Mars and the search for life on this planet.

Curiosity was launched in November 2011 and it successfully landed on the planet in August 2012. The landing system used to deploy the rover safely was a unique multi-stage one. The rover was contained in a capsule that deployed a parachute when it entered the atmosphere of Mars. At approximately 1.5 km from the ground, the rover and its sky crane dropped away from the capsule body. The sky crane used rockets to slow the descent and cords lowered the rover onto the surface. These cords were then cut as before the crane moved to a safe distance.

Curiosity is the largest rover ever successfully landed on another planet. Its mission is to help determine whether Mars could ever have supported life. Curiosity will also look at the role of water on Mars and study the climate and geology of Mars. Results from the mission will help prepare for any future human exploration of the planet. The rover has multiple instruments onboard to help in its mission. These include: several imagers, a microscope, meteorological sensors, chemical analysis equipment for samples, UV-visible-IR and X-ray spectrometers, a drill, and a laser to vaporize areas of rock for chemical analysis, amongst others.

Mars has long been a source of fascination for mankind; its exploration truly began in the 1600s when the first telescopes were invented. In the 1960s and 1970s both Russia and the USA carried out numerous missions in a race to achieve the first successful flyby of another planet by a spacecraft. There were many failures but on July 14, 1965, NASA’s Mariner 4 was successful in providing the first close-up photographs of Mars. After several more Mariner missions, the Viking program was the next stage in exploration, with Viking 1 becoming the first spacecraft to successfully land on Mars on July 20, 1976. More recently, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers which landed on Mars in 2004 have been a huge success, operating for several years longer than their initial mission objectives.

The Curiosity rover is by no means the last mission that is planned for Mars:

  • InSight is a NASA Mars lander mission planned for launch in 2016 that will study its early geological evolution
  • ExoMars rover is a European Space Agency mission that will land in 2018 to drill into the soil in search of organic molecules

These are just two of many proposed missions to the red planet that shows our interest in Mars has yet to be sated. It is possible that one day one a mission to Mars will find signs that it once supported life or indeed still does.

Inspec control terms

Inspec has many control terms and classifications which relate to Mars and planetary exploration including:

  • aerospace control
  • entry, descent and landing
  • planetary atmospheres
  • planetary interiors
  • planetary magnetism
  • planetary remote sensing
  • planetary rocks
  • planetary rovers
  • planetary surfaces
  • planetary volcanism
  • Mars
  • space vehicles


a9630G Mars and satellites
a9635H Planetary neutral atmospheres
a9635K Planetary ionospheres; magnetospheres
a9635M Planetary interiors
a9635P Planetary electric and magnetic fields
a9555L Aerospace instrumentation
a9555P Lunar, planetary, and deep-space probes
a9575 Astronomical techniques
a9635 Planetary and satellite characteristics and properties
a9635G Planetary surfaces and topography; tectonics
c3360L Aerospace control
c3390C Mobile robots