National Geographic : 2013 Jul
Stevenson, a Scot, was exploring California in 1880 with his new bride. I’m one of a team of more than 500 travelers exploring Mars from California with the most sophisticated robot ever sent to another planet. As I write, Curios- ity is pounding a hole into a rock in Gale crater. That Neanderthal feat may not seem like proof of its sophistication. But it is. It took us ten years of engineering on Earth and six months of preparation on Mars to get to that rock. Drill- ing a two-inch-deep hole into it and extracting a baby-aspirin-size piece will take weeks more. We’re doing it all to look for chemical evidence that Mars is not so different from Earth—that it too was once hospitable to life. I’m a geologist, and I do fieldwork on Earth. I usually head out with only a handful of other people. We drive into remote areas with four- wheel-drive trucks or get dropped off by small airplanes or helicopters. Then we walk a lot. To plan a field campaign takes months, not a decade, and when I want to sample a rock, I reach into my rucksack, grab my rock hammer, and knock off a piece. Sampling takes minutes, not weeks. Back in the lab we analyze samples in a few days rather than the months it takes Curiosity. On Earth as on Mars, doing fieldwork well takes a great deal After taking its first scoops of Martian soil, Curiosity posed for a self-portrait. Stitched together from 63 images, it shows the entire rover and even the imprints in the sand of its scoop and wheels—but not the seven-foot robotic arm that was holding the camera. NASA/JPL/MSSS By John Grotzinger “There is no foreign land; it is the traveller only that is foreign.” — Robert Louis Stevenson THE NEW AGE OF EXPLORATION is a yearlong series of articles celebrating National Geographic at 125.