Driving Curiosity to discovery

Eva Emerson
Sandy Schaffer
Clara Ma, who in 2009 won an essay contest to name NASA’s new Mars rover, named it Curiosity. “Curiosity,” the young student wrote, “is an everlasting flame that burns in everyone’s mind. It makes me get out of bed in the morning and wonder what surprises life will throw at me…. When I was younger, I wondered, ‘Why is the sky blue?’, ‘Why do the stars twinkle?’, ‘Why am I me?’, and I still do.”

Prone to bouts of wonder myself, I like Ma’s choice. Curiosity is the most advanced robot to roll on the Red Planet, and the fourth NASA rover on Mars. One other NASA rover, Opportunity, is still wheeling around up there. With 17 cameras and an onboard lab, Curiosity has explored a nearly 10-kilometer stretch of Martian landscape. As contributing correspondent Alexandra Witze describes, the rover has spent the last 33 months evaluating Mars’ ability to have supported life in the ancient past. Curiosity has discovered unexplained methane gas, the presence of organic molecules in the soil and (more) evidence that lakes and rivers once covered the planet’s now barren surface.

Curiosity’s findings have been covered in these pages and elsewhere, but Witze pulls them all together in a travel diary to highlight the rover’s key moments. As Witze says, “Curiosity has done about as much in under three years as the Opportunity rover has in 10 years. It’s kind of like the Cadillac to Opportunity’s Ford Fiesta.”

Examples of discovery driven by curiosity, lowercase, also fill this issue. A new report documents how a mother spider gives of herself completely to feed her brood. Another explains the origin of the bend in the chain of volcanic seamounts punctuated by the Hawaiian Islands. And genes involved in fighting inflammation, called SIGLECs, have been linked to life span, adding a new clue about why some creatures live longer than others.

Obviously, there’s more to explore, on Mars and closer to home. Predicting the weather is a big one. As Ma concludes in her essay, “We have discovered so much about the world, but still so little.”

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