We may not have sent people to Mars yet, but in preparation, we have sent something else – Mars rovers.
Right now there are two rovers operating on the surface of Mars – the rover Opportunity, which launched in 2003, and the rover Curiosity, which launched in 2011.
Two rovers, built by humanity, are driving across the surface of another planet right now. It almost sounds like science fiction, or a prediction of the future, but it is real.
You can look up at the sky at night, find the red dot that is Mars, and know that at the very moment you are looking, there are two active human-built rovers driving around on that dot. It’s amazing to think about, especially when you realise that humanity only first learned how to build aircraft only just over 100 years ago.
These rovers are studying the Martian surface, analysing the ground, looking for signs of past water, analysing the atmosphere, and most importantly, looking for signs of past life.
Any confirmation that forms of life used to exist on Mars in its ancient history would be tremendous news – the first discovery of life forms beyond Earth. Discovery of life on Mars would have huge consequences – if the planet next door also has life, then it is logical to assume that life must be teeming throughout the universe.
Alas, no signs of life have been detected yet. These rovers have helped to contribute to the discovery of water on Mars, however, which is a crucial ingredient for life.
The rovers have some good cameras on board, and regularly take photos of the Martian landscape. We have access to real images of a different planet right now. It sort of boggles the mind to think that we are looking at another planet when we look at these images.
What I find quite odd is just how familiar it all looks – for pretty much any of the images, you can say it was taken on Earth and that would be completely believable.
One of my favourite images is of a Martian sunset taken in 2005 – sunsets on Mars cause the sky to glow blue.
It’s a nice flip from days on Earth – instead of blue days and red sunsets, Mars has red days and blue sunsets.
There are plans to launch a new rover to Mars in 2020. This rover will be more technologically advanced than any other rover sent, and will also look for signs of past life – as well as collecting samples of the Martian surface, which may in the future be returned to Earth for study in a new mission.
This mission may even include a small solar-powered helicopter drone – which could fly short distances to help pinpoint objects for study by the rover, and to map out a route for the rover. I hope this drone is included because I think it sounds so cool!
There are a couple of rovers on Mars that are no longer operational. Communication can no longer be made with these, however we do know their approximate location.
I would not be surprised if in the future when manned travel to Mars is possible, these rovers may either be collected and displayed in museums, or have structures built around them to protect and showcase them. The same may happen to old Mars landers, and even lunar landers on the moon.
Rovers have not just been sent to Mars – there have been a few moon rovers as well, including some manned ones that were sent up during the Apollo moon landings. If you want to get technical, this means Elon Musk’s Telsa Roadster was not the first car sent to space!
Unmanned rovers in the future could be sent elsewhere in the solar system – we could have exploratory rovers on the moons of Jupiter or Saturn, perhaps Venus, and maybe even as far-flung as the moons of Uranus and Neptune, or Pluto.
We haven’t sent rovers to these places yet as the cost is much higher than sending one to Mars, and Mars is the most likely location in the solar system other than Earth to harbour signs of life.
But once this becomes easier in the future, sending rovers for lesser reasons, such as pure exploration, should become attainable. Photos of Jupiter from the surface of one of its moons would be incredible.
Imagine a rover landing on the surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, and taking images of the giant cryovolcanoes erupting material out into space with Saturn and its rings in the background!
I hope I am one day able to see things like this.