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On track of water on Mars

Excitement is building up as the scientists in-charge of NASA’s Mars Rover Curiosity have begun operational readiness tests of the vehicle, this fortnight, with less than 75 days to go for the landing. The Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft, launched on 26 November 2011, will deliver Curiosity to the surface of Mars on 5 August 2012 to begin a two-year prime mission of the exploration of Mars. Curiosity is thus the latest in a series of spacecraft sent to study the planet. Curiosity’s landing site is near the base of a mountain inside Gale Crater, near the Martian equator where researchers plan to use Curiosity to study layers in the mountain that hold evidence about the wet environments of early Mars. The current mission is important as it will built up on knowledge gathered painstakingly over the years, and especially recently, and will add considerably to our knowledge about the red planet. Included in the important findings in the last few years is the geological evidence gathered by unmanned missions that suggest that Mars once had large-scale water coverage on its surface. In 2004 Opportunity had spotted minerals and blueberry-shaped rocks indicative of ancient groundwater in the Martian crater Endurance. In 2005, radar data revealed the presence of large quantities of water ice at the poles, and at mid-latitudes. In March 2007, the Mars rover Spirit sampled chemical compounds containing water molecules. Most interestingly, the Phoenix lander directly sampled water ice in shallow Martian soil on 31 July 2008.

These new findings progressively suggest that water once shaped the Martian landscape on a regional scale instead of forming isolated oases. As water is a key ingredient for life, these findings are doubly exciting. They make it more probable that life once existed on this planet. The presence of water also makes it more feasible for humans to survive on Mars were manned missions to this planet ever to become a reality. Mars has always fascinated humanity. It has been the subject of much speculation, imaginative literature and of films. Its close study has dispelled many myths while bringing forth exciting new information. Till humanity sets foot on Mars through a manned mission, it is machines like Curiosity that will do our investigation for us. We must wish it luck.
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