NASA's newest robotic rover has already begun its work although it's only a few weeks into its eight-month-long journey to Mars.
Scientists didn't wait until the SUV-sized rover, dubbed Curiosity, arrived at the Red Planet to put it to work. While traveling through space, the rover has begun monitoring space radiation.
NASA researchers are hoping the information will help them plan for a human mission to Mars.
Curiosity is using its radiation assessment detector to monitor high-energy atomic and subatomic particles from the sun, distant supernovas and other sources. The radiation could be harmful to astronauts traveling through space or working on Mars.
"[The radiation detector] is serving as a proxy for an astronaut inside a spacecraft on the way to Mars," said Don Hassler, the RAD's principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo. "The instrument is deep inside the spacecraft, the way an astronaut would be. Understanding the effects of the spacecraft on the radiation field will be valuable in designing craft for astronauts to travel to Mars."
Last year, President Barack Obama said his administration expects that NASA will send humans to orbit Mars and return to Earth by the mid-2030s. A landing on Mars is planned for after that.
Curiosity was launched in late November and is expected to land on Mars in August. The super rover's mission is to discover if Mars could now, or if it ever could have supported life. NASA scientists hope it will expand their understanding of life in the universe.
Once the rover, which carries 10 science instruments, lands on Mars, it also will monitor radiation on the planet's surface.
"While Curiosity will not look for signs of life on Mars, what it might find could be a game-changer about the origin and evolution of life on Earth and elsewhere in the universe," said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA, in a statement. "One thing is certain: The rover's discoveries will provide critical data that will impact human and robotic planning and research for decades."
As of noon ET Wednesday, Curiosity will have traveled 31.9 million miles of its 352-million-mile trip to Mars, NASA said.
Curiosity will join the rover Opportunity, which has been working on Mars for more than six years. The new rover weighs 1 ton and is twice as long and five times heavier than its predecessors. The extra instruments and mobility should be a big help to NASA, which has been down one Mars robot since the rover Spirit, a robotic twin to Opportunity, stopped functioning earlier this year.
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