What is the farthest you have ever been away from home? No matter how far, it is likely that the Curiosity rover on Mars has you beat as it navigates the red planet, more than 30 million miles from Earth.
Curiosity is the latest of many manned and unmanned missions into the final frontier.
“This is the largest rover we have had on the planet Mars yet,” said Richard Walker of Longway Planetarium. “Its instruments are much more sophisticated.”
Curiosity rover is equipped with many cameras and is capable of taking video. It has tools to measure humidity, pressure, wind speeds, radiation, and a 7-foot robotic arm, which it used this weekend to touch its first rock.
The job that awaits the Curiosity rover is related to the recent discovery that there was water on Mars at some point.
“Ok, if there was water, was there ever life there? That’s what Curiosity is looking for, to see if conditions are there to make life possible in the past,” Walker said.
While Curiosity is the most recent pro-ject and receives the most media attention, NASA is currently working on other projects and missions as well. In 2006, NASA launched the New Horizons spacecraft, which is headed toward Pluto and beyond. The spacecraft will travel more than three billion miles, and is not expected to reach Pluto until July 2013.
Other missions include the Messenger, which is a robotic spacecraft currently orbiting Mercury. Due to its proximity to the sun, using the Hubble telescope without damaging it is difficult. The Messenger spacecraft has been orbiting the innermost planet of the solar system since 2004.
With the space shuttle system retired, NASA is currently working on finding a replacement. The Commercial Crew Integrated Capability program has provided more than $1 billion in funding to develop a new system of sending astronauts into space within the next five years, according to wired.com.
The company SpaceX, which received funding from the program, is scheduled to fly the first commercial resupply mission of the International Space Mission next month.
While looking ahead at the future of space exploration, it is sometimes hard to separate fact from science fiction, as the two are intertwined quite a bit. Future proposals being considered by NASA include a “gateway spacecraft” 277,000 miles from Earth – putting it 38,000 miles past the moon. This is more than 100 times further than the International Space Station.
Accomplishing such a task would be quite a bit in our future, and would also require the use of another in development NASA project, the Space Launch System (SLS). The SLS is meant to serve as a replacement to the retired space shuttle, and is scheduled to be completed by 2017.
These projects and those even farther in the future, all contribute to the goal of adding to our scientific knowledge. “The biggest, broadest goals are that we want to know where we came from. It’s the same as why would we study history,” said Dr. Rajib Ganguly, assistant professor of physics at the University of Michigan-Flint. “We want to know ‘what are the things that led up to us being here,’ and part of that is ‘how did our solar system get here.’”
Every mission to study space helps these goals, according to Ganguly. “By going out and studying other things in our solar system, we get clues to try and answer those big questions,” he said.