Adventures in Science

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Did you see the launch of the Mars Curiosity Rover last week from NASA at Cape Kennedy, Florida? It was awesome!

Curiosity is an exciting and important robot because its job when it gets to Mars in 8 months is to look for life there. Scientists suspect that there is some very primitive form of life on Mars, but we need to send a probe with instruments and detectors built into it to test the martian environment for evidence of life.

Curiosity probably won’t find a baby plant like Wall-E does in the movie. If life is detected it’s more likely to be a type of tiny, microscopic life. That would be great because it would be the first time that people have discovered life anywhere other than Earth.

Here’s a video animation from NASA/JPL that shows us how Curiosity will travel from Earth to Mars and what Curiosity will be doing once it lands.

Yes! It will shoot laser beams at stuff on Mars.

One of the most important things you need to keep in mind if you are building a robot that will probe another planet for life, is that you don’t want to send any Earth life with your robot probe. If your rover arrives on Mars covered in Earth germs your life detectors are going to detect life, but possibly not martian life. Or perhaps the scientists would be scratching their heads when Curiosity discovered that along with unknown alien life, Mars also has athletes’ foot. Awkward…

To send a clean spacecraft to another planet you need to build it in a clean room like this:

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The above picture was the Mars Curiosity Rover’s room on Earth at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. Your bedroom is a pig sty compared to Mars Curiosity Rover’s room. The interesting thing about this room is that it is cleaner than cleanest place you’ve probably ever been outside of a hospital operating room. Operating rooms and JPL’s clean room are designed to have fewer than 10,000 particles of 0.5 micrometers (microns) or more in diameter in the air. Microscopic life bigger than 0.5 microns are yeast, mold, most bacteria, spores and pollen.

Hey, wait! People are bigger than 0.5 microns! They are covered cooties! How can we prevent the people working in the clean room from contaminating the spacecraft? Here’s how. Before it traveled to Florida in preparation for launch to Mars, you used to be able to watch the clean room engineers and technicians build Curiosity on the internet via a webcam. However, Curiosity is traveling to Mars at the moment so Curiosity Cam is off air. Fortunately, we have a video of JPL clean room technicians in action:

You can’t miss that the technicians are completely covered in white clean room suits. These are also known as bunny suits.

We wish they came with the ears...but...no.

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The clean room suits including masks, gloves, smocks, pants, and booties are designed to keep human cooties, hair, skin cells, or whatever off the spacecraft. There are many more videos showing the assembly of Curiosity at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory clean room at YouTube. Check them out.

This NASA video from a different project shows how even pieces of paper must be wiped down front and back before they can enter a clean room, or in this case, a clean tent:

Now, think about how you would get your room clean enough to make a robot for space in there.

Don’t forget the bunny suit.

Adorable.

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