I woke up earlier than normal today and quickly rushed to my computer to watch Curiosity, a NASA rover, attempt to land on the surface of Mars. I wasn’t alone either, people all over the world either stayed up late or woke up early to watch the event. I found myself holding my breath as the rover tried to make the very tricky landing without crashing.
When I went on Twitter to see what the community was talking about, there was much excitement as Curiosity finally made its historic landing. I was smiling as I saw the team behind the mission burst in applause after the robot successfully maneuvered the seven minutes landing. Soon after it beamed its first images back to Earth. Over the next two years it will be collecting soil samples and studying the surface of the red planet to discover if life existed there in the past and whether there is (or was) water or not.
Many people on social networks, however, were arguing that such a mission was a waste of money – begging the question of why waste US$2.5 billion to study the surface of Mars. Who cares if there was life there?
Humans have been driven throughout the millennia by our keen interest to learn more, by our curiosity about things we did not understand. This is the driving force behind all aspects of science and, arguably, the reason we have achieved so much. By nature, we tend to question everything. We have a insatiable hunger for knowledge. This curiosity is the initial driving force behind missions such as that of the aptly names Curiosity rover. Even if there is no direct, fathomable benefit we will glean from landing on Mars, our hunger for knowledge drives us on.
“If you look at Mars, it appears as Earth’s twin planet. It is very similar in size and the closest planet to us,” says Essam Heggy, a planetary scientist in the Radar Science Group at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “You can’t learn much about Earth unless you approach it as part of the solar system, and learn about its position among the other planets, rather than as an isolated entity.”
What we learn there may be relevant to us on Earth as well. Space exploration is, in general, about much more than what we see in space. Much of space exploration and the science involved in it is very much related to our lives here on Earth.
For example, the Curiosity mission will explore the surface of Mars for water. On Earth, we already have serious water problems. The Middle East is mostly desert. The technologies that the rover will use to hunt for water on Mars can easily be adapted to hunt for water right here on our home planet.
“The Arab region is the largest oil producer in the world, but the poorest in water resources. However, we invest more in oil exploration than anything else, and we are the poorest investors in water exploration,” says Heggy. “The NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory has been using radar successfully for 40 years. The first radar imaging experiment was not on Earth, but on Venus. The latest experimental use of radar imaging was on the moon Titan.”
The similarities between Earth and Mars might also offer us a glimpse into the future of our planet. Radar imaging shows that Mars once had rivers of water (which are dried up now) running through it – a blue planet just like Earth. “The most interesting discovery is that, by looking through these images, we learned that water did not disappear from Mars over millions of years. It only took a few thousand years for the planet to dry up.” Is this a glimpse into what could happen on Earth, especially in a time of uncertainty due to climate change?
We may not know exactly what this drive for knowledge may bring humanity. We may not be sure now what kind of amazing technologies we will get from it. However, the Apollo programme was responsible for wonderful inventions that have become pivotal to our lives on Earth. I am not sure if Curiosity will yield the same results. However, I doubt a search for knowledge could ever be a bad thing. Even if it cost US$2.5 billion to send this relatively small rover to Mars, it is still an exciting step for humanity in our continuous exploration of our universe.