At 126 million kilometers earth, just in Mars's huge red light, a 4×4 sized robot starts shortly after dawn. Like every day for six years, wait for the instructions.
Around 9:30, hour Mars, arrives the message that leaves California a quarter of an hour before: "A 10-meter advance turns to 45 degrees and continues its independent form until that time."
Curiosity, as it is called, moves slowly, between 35 and 110 meters per hour, no more. Batteries and other limitations explain their daily voyage of about one hundred meters, reaching a record 220 meters.
Once there, the 17 rooms of the robot photograph the surroundings. His laser makes fun of stones. Faced with a particularly attractive stone, he stops taking a sample of a few grams.
Later, the robot will wait for the passage of one of NASA's three satellites They orbit around Mars to present their report: a few hundred megabits, then transmitted to the main terrestrial antennas of their human bosses.
– Miniature Laboratory –
On the ground floor of the 34 building at the Goddard Space Center in NASA, Greenbelt, approximately one hour from Washington, scientists are analyzing this data every day. In that large room without windows of instruments and computers, look for life on Mars.
The Curiosity Inside is a "miracle of miniaturization": a chemical microwave laboratory called SAM.
Charles Malespin, Deputy Head of the Curiosity Science Team, highlights the tools in the work plans: they were reduced and compact inside the robot.
"This is the most complicated instrument ever sent by NASA to other planets"says Malespin, who has dedicated her professional life since 2006.
SAM analyzes the samples by heating them in an oven up to 1000 ° C. While cooking, the rocks and the earth release gas. Then these gases are separated and sent to the instruments that analyze them and make a "footprint" of the sample.
At Goddard, French researcher Maeva Millan compares the chemical footprint with that of experiments on known molecules. When curves are imitated, he says, "This is my good molecule."
Due to SAM, it is known that there are complex organic molecules on Mars, and that the age of the planet's surface has been established, geologically much younger than scientists believed.
"If we want to go to Mars, it is useless to import resources that already exist," Malespin adds, referring, for example, to water.
"We could dig the ground, warm the water and release the water, wearing an oven, we'll have as much water as we want," he says. The same applies to various materials that could become fuel for a future "missile service station".
– without a joystick –
On the other side of the United States at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, near Los Angeles, There are about 15 men and women who command Curiosity.
"My favorite moment of the day is when I'm seeing pictures from Mars," says Frank Hartman, who orders Curiosity and another robot on the other side of the phone, Opportunity, which broke out in June.
The work of drivers is to plan the Martian day – which lasts 24 hours and 40 minutes – of the robot and program the commands to accomplish it.
If you do not have a joystick or real-time communications, it is unlikely that they will be in trouble beforehand, such as Opportunity saturation or holes caused by rocky soil in Curiosity wheels.
"We have to remember that we know almost nothing about this place," says Hartman.
Over the years, scientists and drivers are attached to robots. When Opportunity broke down, after 14 years, Hartman and his teammates wanted to cry. "He withdrew with honors," he says.
Curiosity made 19.75 km in 2012. In a year, you should reach your goal: Mount Sharp. A few months later, he will lose his Martian monopoly. Two US and European robots are expected to land on the planet in 2020.