Written by By Rosie Knight, CNN
NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity spent over 10 years exploring the red planet and providing researchers with a wealth of data.
One of the most interesting specimens it sent back to Earth was an oblong rock called Middleton Ridge, which is on display in the new Smithsonian exhibit, “Mars: The Untold Story,” which commemorates the first manned mission to the red planet.
Middleton Ridge. Courtesy Smithsonian Institution
More than 200 employees from NASA’s Mars mission program across the US and Europe attended the exhibition opening in the J. Paul Getty Museum on Thursday and demonstrated how Curiosity captured the image of the rock.
More than 40 rooms featuring more than 800 objects, provided a rare insight into the NASA mission program to explore Mars.
The Smithsonian, who invited NASA to present the exhibit, wanted to celebrate the robots’ work, but it also prompted an important discussion, according to event co-curator Daniel Sontag.
“These robots were working on Mars and there have been humans exploring Mars for decades, but they don’t have this white-knuckle reality feel,” he said.
Space Shuttle Endeavour at the Smithsonian’s Space Shuttle Pavilion on September 28, 2018 in Washington, DC. Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images North America/Getty Images
“With this work, the NASA scientists are asking, ‘what is the right thing to do?’ These robots have been working on Mars for decades, and there are many gray areas and the present is only postulated, not real.”
“Those questions need to be addressed.”
The questions raised by the exhibition also took space in Washington during the week. On Friday NASA’s Curiosity rover revealed the current state of Mars exploration is “a mess.”
The robotic explorer is currently in the middle of a two-year long drive to extend the distance it covers over the planet’s surface, but its first trip to Mount Sharp, which could be 2.5 miles long, is likely to prove challenging.
While it carries out research, the Curiosity rover is also learning how to traverse a terrain made up of some of the toughest rocks, according to Mars Science Laboratory Project Manager Jennifer Trosper.
“We’ll end up getting into the middle of the rocky terrain, then it will have to find ways to traverse and if we don’t know how to do it or where to look for cracks and crevices then it will get further off our schedule and we’ll have to make adjustments,” she said.
“We want to get to Mount Sharp to test our ideas about where to go.”
One of NASA’s Mars explorers, Curiosity, is on its way to Mt Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Mars is a planet with a lot of running water. NASA’s InSight spacecraft, which is currently on its way to the red planet and will land in November, will soon study some of the planet’s underground reservoirs of water.
And even though the scientists involved in Curiosity’s quest for Mount Sharp will have to deal with its unpredictability, Trosper is confident it is vital to continue searching for alien life on Mars.
“We’re heading to a place where we could find life and that is too big of a question for us to not try to get to and answer in order to actually have an answer to our quest,” she said.
“For us, the question of life on Mars is there and it is just a question of when we will finally be able to answer it.”