Shooting a robotic laboratory 350 million miles into space so it can conduct science experiments on an alien world? Despite the fact that we’ve seen this real-life story unfolding on our TV screens and computer monitors, the Mars Rover mission still feels a little bit like science fiction.
However, Curiosity’s survey of the Red Planet utilizes a lot of the same technology we use in our everyday lives.
You’re probably familiar with servers in the context of the workplace (they’re the computers dedicated to specific functions like your office email). NASA’s space missions rely heavily on servers. In testing Curiosity’s all-important landing sequence, NASA used a pair of high-powered server arrays manufactured by Dell.
Interestingly enough, most of the digital horsepower required for the Curiosity mission stayed on the ground at various NASA facilities. To leave enough room for the survey gear, NASA packed the rover with no more computer equipment than absolutely necessary. In fact, some observers have said that Curiosity itself has only about one-quarter of the computing power of an iPhone 4S.
Here on Earth, we use lasers for everything from playing DVDs to performing corrective eye surgery. The laser mounted on the Rover operates on the same principle, only on a much larger scale.
This laser aims its beam at rocks and soil on the surface of Mars and heats the target to 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit. The target emits a flash of light that Curiosity’s sensor equipment analyzes to determine its chemical structure.
The earthly applications for this technology — laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy, or LIBS — include cancer detection and environmental monitoring.
Transmitting signals across the vast reaches of space isn’t exactly the same thing as taking your laptop for an online spin using an earthbound 4G network, like the one developed by CLEAR. They share the same technological underpinnings, though, and these space missions wouldn’t be possible without wireless communication. NASA even adopted its own set of procedures, called the Space Communications Protocol Standards, several years ago.
It’s wireless technology that lets Curiosity share all those amazing photos from the surface of Mars in a matter of seconds. And it’s the development of otherworldly applications for everyday technology that helps a new generation of space pioneers keep their eyes on the sky.