At 126 million kilometers from Earth, only in the red and cold spaces Mars, a robot size of a small 4k4 starts shortly after dawn. Like every day for six years, wait for your instructions.
About 9:30 Mars, a message leaves California for a quarter of an hour earlier: "A 10-meter progression turns to 45 degrees and continues with an independent form to that point."
"Curiosity"His name is slowly moving, between 35 and 110 meters an hour, more … Batteries and other restrictions explain their daily journey of about one hundred meters and reach a record of 220 meters.
Once the robot cameras record the environment. The laser is mixed with the wall. Faced with a particularly attractive stone, it stops taking a sample of several grams.
At around 5:00 am local time, the robot will wait for the passage of one of three satellites OUR They circle around Mars to deliver their report: several hundred megabytes, then transmitted to the main terrestrial antennas of their human bosses.
– Miniature laboratory –
On the ground floor of the building 34 at NASA's Goddard Space Center in Greenbelt, about an hour from Washington, scientists analyze this data every day. In this glossy room without a window of full instruments and computers, look for signs of life on Mars.
The interior of Curiosity is a "miracle miniaturization": a chemical laboratory of the size of a microwave oven called SAM.
Charles Malespin, deputy head of the Curiosity Scientific Team, highlights instruments in work plans: they are reduced and collected within robots.
"This is the most complicated instrument ever sent by NASA to another planet," says Malespin, who since 2006 devoted his professional life.
SAM analyzes the samples by heating in the oven to 1000 ° C. While cooking, stones and soil release gases. Then, these gases are separated and sent with instruments that analyze them and draw a "fingerprint" of the sample.
In Goddard, French researcher Maeva Millan compares this chemical impression with experiments from known molecules. When imitating curves, he says, "It's my good molecule."
Thanks to SAM, it is known that there are complex organic molecules on Mars and that the antiquity of the planet's surface, which is geologically much younger than the scientists believed, was established.
"If we want to go to Mars, it is useless to import resources that already exist," adds Malespin, for example, on water. "We could dig the ground, heat and fire water, just carry the oven, we will have as much water as we want," he says. The same applies to different materials that can become fuel for a future "missile service station".
– No joystick –
On the other side of the United States, in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, near Los Angeles, there are about 15 men and women who run Curiosites.
"My favorite moment is when I sit down to see pictures sent from Mars," says Frank Hartman, who is commanded by Curiosity and another robot, Opportunity, which crashed in June.
The driver's work is to plan a March day – which lasts 24 hours and 40 minutes – from the robot and program the commands to abide by it.
If you do not have a joystick or real-time communication, it's unlikely to detect problems in advance, such as the Opportuniti saturation or holes caused by stones in the Curiositi wheels.
"We must keep in mind that we almost do not know about this place," says Hartman.
For years, scientists and drivers have been tied to their robots. When Opportunity was broken, after 14 years, Hartman and his relatives wanted to cry. "He retired with honor," he says.
The curiosity made 19.75 km from 2012. In a year, he should achieve his goal: Mount Sharp. A few months later, he will lose his martial monopoly. It is expected that two US and European robots will land on the planet in 2020.
Ivan Couronne / AFP