Spacecraft are vehicles designed for space travel that may or may not require pilotage, with each maneuver using limited fuel to speed towards its destination.
The Mars Rover
The rover has an array of instruments designed to search rock samples for biosignatures – chemical hallmarks that indicate life on Mars in its early history – as a potential record of ancient Mars’ climate that enabled life’s evolution.
Curiosity successfully made its landing after an eight-month voyage to Mars after disengaging its protective aeroshell, known as an entry vehicle, and opening its “petals”. Curiosity (named for Sojourner Truth as an abolitionist), maintained a spin rate of two revolutions per minute to assist its landing process.
Curiosity’s lander is constructed out of graphite beams that form a lightweight and rigid structure compared to aluminum or steel. Its unique tetrahedron shape allows it to absorb more solar power. Lithium batteries and electronic equipment such as spectrometers require warmth for proper functioning; heat is provided by plutonium’s radioactive decay process.
The Mars Orbiter
NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter stands out among spacecraft missions as one of the greatest feats of space travel ever achieved. Launched into Mars orbit in September of 2014, becoming first Asian nation and fourth space agency worldwide (India being first).
This multitasking satellite features two cameras to capture high-resolution images of Mars’ surface. Another instrument identifies mineral compositions while yet another deciphers Mars’ environment and climate history by analyzing powdered samples from rocks.
MRO made several discoveries during its mission. These included how atmospheric pressure fluctuates with seasons on Mars, melting polar caps releasing carbon dioxide emissions during Martian years and finding an abundance of water on its surface. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena managed the mission while Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver created and designed its spacecraft which continued communication until April of 2022.
The Mars Express
Mars Express is Europe’s inaugural probe to explore Mars, carrying both an orbiter and lander with the latter named Beagle 2 after Charles Darwin’s ship that carried him around the world. Unfortunately, Beagle 2 lost contact with Earth before its final attempt at landing occurred on Mars in December 2003.
Since its launch, Mars Express has made numerous notable discoveries, such as methane in its atmosphere and water ice beneath polar caps, as well as suggesting evidence that liquid water once covered the planet’s surface. Furthermore, it has provided breathtaking pictures of Mars and mapped its interior structures, mineralogy and geology.
Mars Express’ success can be attributed to its rapid development, using off-the-shelf commercial technology and being managed by EADS Astrium Satellites with several onboard systems providing it with pinpoint pointing accuracy of 0.04 degrees with respect to an inertial reference frame.
The Mars Science Laboratory
NASA built and launched Curiosity to Mars on August 6, 2012. Landing in Gale Crater, this carlike rover serves as a scientific laboratory on wheels to assess whether Mars ever supported life beyond single-celled organisms.
Curiosity’s mission to determine this has ten different instruments, which allow it to search for organic molecules and analyze ratios between carbon and other elements found in rocks and soil in order to detect any signs of life.
As well as its main cameras (Mastcam and ChemCam RMI), it also features a remote micro imager capable of taking close-up pictures of rocks and soil, using its scoop to collect samples for examination, and cooking these samples in an oven before inspecting for organic matter in them.