At 126 million kilometers from Tierra, only in the cold and red enormity of Mars, A robot size of a small 4×4 starts soon after dawn. As every day for six years, wait for instructions.
Around 9.30am, Mars time, a message appears that leaves California a quarter of an hour before: "The course of 10 meters, rotates at an angle of 45 degrees and continues autonomously up to this point."
"Curiosity", what is called, it moves slowly, from 35 to 110 meters per hour, no more, Batteries and other limitations explain the daily journey about a hundred meters, reaching a record of 220 meters.
There 17 robot cameras photograph the surroundings. His laser ridicules rocks. In the face of a particularly attractive stone, a sample of several grams stops.
Around 17 local time, the robot is waiting for the passage of one of the three NASA satellites circulating around Mars to provide the report: several hundred megabits, then sent to the main ground antennas of your human bosses.
Laboratory in miniature
On the ground floor of the building 34 Space Center Goddard in Greenbeltan hour from Washington, Researchers analyze this data every day.
In this huge room without windows filled with instruments and computers, look for traces of life on Mars.
Interior of "Curiosity" is a "miracle of miniaturization": a chemical laboratory of the size of a microwave oven, called SAM.
Charles Malespin, deputy head of the Curiosity scientific team, indicates instruments in the work plans: they were reduced and compacted inside the robot.
"This is the most complicated instrument sent by NASA to another planet", says Malespin, who devoted his professional life to him since 2006.
SAM analyzes the samples by heating them in the oven to the moment 1000 ° C When cooking, rocks and earth release gases. The gases are then separated and sent to instruments that analyze them and draw a "fingerprint" of the sample.
In Goddard, French researcher Maeva Millan compares this chemical trace with the experiments carried out on known molecules. When the curves are imitated, he says: "It's my good molecule."
Thanks to SAM, we know that there are complex organic molecules on Mars and that the antiquity of the planet's surface has been determined, geologically much younger than scientists.
"If we want to go to Mars, there is no point in importing resources that already exist," adds Malespin, referring to water, for example. "We can dig up the earth, warm it and release water, just take the oven, we'll have as much water as we want," he says. The same applies to various materials that can become a fuel for the future "rocket service station".
On the other side of the United Statesat the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, near Los Angeles, There are about 15 men and women who prove Curiosity.
"My favorite moment of the day is when I sit down and watch images sent from Mars", says on the other side of the phone Frank Hartman, who recommends Curiosity and another robot, Opportunity, which broke down in June.
The drivers' work consists in planning a Martian day – which lasts 24 hours and 40 minutes – and programming the commands to comply with it. Lack of communication with the joystick or real-time communication is unlikely to reveal problems in advance, such as saturation of Opportunity or holes caused by rocky soil in Curiosity wheels.
"We must remember that we know almost nothing about this place," says Hartman. Over the years, scientists and drivers have been attached to their robots. When the Opportunity broke up, after 14 years Hartman and his teammates wanted to cry. "He left with honors, "he says.