Last time on Origin Story, we learnt about the origin of airplanes. This time, let us fly a bit higher and learn something about space rovers!
Mankind’s fascination with space has been a constant for generations, with a perennial interest in other planets and whether they can be inhabited one day!
Among the many cosmic venues that we have set our sights on, the moon became our first and most regular destination in outer space. It all started in 1969, when Neil Armstrong landed there, followed by many others. India, too, has made its mark through moon missions, the first being the Chandrayaan-1 satellite.
And now, for the past few years, much of our attention towards outer space has been on the Red Planet – Mars. A number of rovers have been sent to Mars by different countries, including India’s own Mangalyaan. Wouldn’t it be exciting to know how ISRO, NASA and other space research organisations are studying Mars using these rovers? Let’s get on to it!
Rovers are unmanned vehicles that are sent to outer space to explore planetary bodies like Mars and assist scientists with related research. The most successful space research organisation in the Mars mission has been NASA of the USA, which has sent five rovers to the Red Planet, the most so far by any country. One of them as recently as 2020, called Perseverance, when we were all staying safe at home owing to the pandemic!
Read on to know more about rovers and their insights on Mars over the years.
The beginning: Sojourn
In 1997, at a time when you weren’t even born, we began sending expeditions to Mars.
The first rover, called Sojourner, explored an area on Mars that was named Ares Vallis.
Scientists on Earth sent the rover to that specific spot because the area had several rocks and sand particles. Thus, the rover had the potential to study several textures without travelling too much. Mighty efficient, right?
It studied Ares Vallis for 83 days and sent 550 photographs to Earth. It also analysed the chemical properties of sixteen other locations nearby.
Sojourner used instruments to study what the nearby Martian rocks and dirt were made of. From the information collected as part of the mission, we understood that although the planet seems cold and dry from here, it was actually much warmer. Mars also had a presence of water in a liquid form. That was an important discovery in understanding the Red Planet.
The next step: In pairs
After the findings of Sojourner, In 2003, NASA sent two more Rovers to Mars. They were called Spirit and Opportunity – and they were much bigger than Sojourner. These were almost as large as golf carts.
Scientists wanted to explore whether Mars used to support forms of life and also understand its evolution.These twin rovers were sent to explore two specific areas of Mars. From the satellite images that were recorded in previous instances, scientists wanted to know if these areas held water.
And lo and behold! Spirit and Opportunity landed in their respective areas and began sending colour photographs of the surface of the Red Planet.
From an area called Gusev Crater, Spirit found several signs of the existence of water! Also, it could detect activity of hot springs or possible volcanic activity. Its twin, Opportunity, also took several colour photographs of its area Meridiani Planum, and also found evidence of the presence of water in the past.
Here’s what else Opportunity found: its landing site suggested that the area was once the shoreline of a salty sea. The rocks that these twin rovers studied helped scientists make an important discovery – water on Mars may have resembled water on Earth. Several years ago, the Red Planet had lakes and rivers on the surface.
For more than seven years, Spirit and Opportunity continued to send solid evidence about the presence of water before they stopped communicating with Earth!
Progressing ahead: Curiosity & sign of life
The missions fulfilled by Sojourner and the twins showed that Mars had water on its surface a long time ago. Naturally, this was exciting news and scientists wanted to explore this further. They were ‘curious’ to know if there were more conditions that supported life.
In November 2011, the Curiosity rover set flight from Earth to determine whether Mars had the conditions to support microbial life. As big as an SUV, the rover landed in 2012 on the Gale Crater.
Now why did experts choose the Gale Crater? It was significant because it had a tall mountain in the middle of it, which is made of many layers of rock and minerals from different time periods. So the rover could help scientists understand the history of water and the existence of life on Mars in one go! Smart thinking, right?
And you know what? Being an advanced version of its predecessors, Curiosity Rover had a selfie-stick as well! There was a camera attached to a seven-foot long robotic arm, which could click photos and send them to Earth. The rover also had instruments to drill holes and dig up some surface dust that experts back on Earth could study. Is it not cool to imagine unmanned vehicles literally ‘digging up’ critical information from Mars and providing us with path-breaking information about its evolution?
With these instruments, our rover helped scientists learn that the Gale crater had ingredients and chemicals such as benzene and propane that ancient life would have needed to survive.
But this is not all from Curiosity! The rover is still successfully operating on Mars and we can expect more findings anytime!
Now exploring: So what did live on Mars?
In 2020, the final rover, Perseverance, was sent and it landed on Mars in February 2021 on Jezero Crater. This crater is interesting to scientists because it is an old region of Mars, and they believe that it may have once been the site of an ancient river delta.
This rover is on its mission to explore whether Mars is habitable and look out for strong signs of past microbial life. It has been on Mars for over two months now and it has just begun studying its crater.
As it explores around, you all must keep your eyes open for exciting discoveries!
We all know about NASA and their dedicated mission to Mars. But did you know that several other countries have sent Rovers to Mars to discover other interesting things about the planet and the possibility of life there?
A total of eight countries are doing research to understand more about our neighbouring planet. Which other countries have sent Rovers? How successful are they? Share your findings with us in the comments.
Aparna is a mom, singer and dreamer. At BYJU'S, she writes stories about learning for children. She believes in the power of music, especially ghazal, the magic of the universe and happy learners. When not writing or singing, you will find her intensely engaged in conversations about life and the power of words.
Arya C is a 4th grader who talks about her transition from the US to India and how BYJU`S has helped her at that. She also loves how BYJU`S has made learning a lot more fun.
Meet Sourabh who has a ton to say about his BYJU`S learning experience. His love for quizzes, games and other fun activities are paying off!
V Shriya is a class eight student who has been using BYJU’S for a year now. She shares her experiences with using the app and how it has helped her in improving her academic performance.