At 126 million kilometers from Earth, only in red and cold enormity MarsA small 4×4 robot starts shortly after dawn. As every day for six years, wait for instructions.
Around 9:30 am Mars, there is a message that leaves California a quarter of an hour before: "The rise by 10 meters, changes to 45 degrees and continues independent form to this point."
"Curiosity"What is called, it moves slowly, from 35 to 110 meters per hour, no more … Batteries and other restrictions explain the daily journey about a hundred meters, reaching a record 220 meters.
There 17 robot cameras photograph the surroundings. His laser ridicules rocks. In the face of a particularly attractive stone, a sample of several grams stops.
Around 17:00 local time, the robot is waiting for the passage of one of the three satellites NASA They orbit around Mars, delivering their report: several hundred megabits, then transmitted to the main terrestrial antennas of their human bosses.
– Miniature laboratory –
On the ground floor of building 34 in the NASA Goddard space center in Greenbelt, about an hour from Washington, scientists are analyzing this data every day. In this huge room without windows filled with instruments and computers, look for traces of life on Mars.
The interior of Curiosity is a "miracle of miniaturization": a chemical laboratory of the size of a microwave oven, called SAM.
Charles Malespin, deputy head of the Curiosity scientific team, points out the instruments in the work plans: they have been reduced and compacted inside the robot.
"This is the most complex instrument NASA sent to another planet," says Malespin, who dedicated his professional life to him from 2006.
SAM analyzes the samples by heating them in an oven to 1000 ° C. During cooking, rocks and soil release gases. The gases are then separated and sent to instruments that analyze them and collect a "fingerprint" of the sample.
In Goddard, the French researcher Maeva Millan compares this chemical trace with experiments carried out on known molecules. When the curves are imitated, he says: "This is my good molecule."
Thanks to SAM, we know that there are complex organic molecules on Mars and that the antiquity of the planet's surface has been determined, geologically much younger than scientists.
"If we want to go to Mars, there is no point in importing resources that already exist," adds Malespin, referring to water, for example. "We could dig up the ground, heat it up and let it out, simply carrying the oven, we'll have as much water as we want," he says. The same applies to various materials that can become a fuel for the future "rocket 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 prove Curiosity.
"My favorite moment of the day is when I sit down and watch images sent from Mars," says Frank Hartman, who recommends Curiosity and another robot, Opportunity, which broke down in June.
The drivers' work consists in planning a Martian day – which lasts 24 hours and 40 minutes – and programming the commands to comply with it.
Lack of communication with the joystick or real-time communication is unlikely to reveal problems in advance, such as saturation of Opportunity or holes caused by rocky soil in Curiosity wheels.
"We must remember that we know almost nothing about this place," says Hartman.
Over the years, scientists and drivers have been attached to their robots. When the Opportunity broke up, after 14 years Hartman and his teammates wanted to cry. "He left with honor," he says.
Curiosity has made 19.75 km since 2012. In a year he should reach his goal: Mount Sharp. A few months later, he will lose his Martian monopoly. It is expected that two American and European robots will reach the planet in 2020.
Ivan Couronne / AFP