NASA’s ‘Curiosity’ Rover Marks First Year On Mars

Mars curiosity rover NASA

‘Curiosity’ landed on Mars in August of last year, bringing on-site soil analysis tools to the planet for the first time

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is celebrating its one-year anniversary on the Martian surface, with the space agency looking forward to more discoveries as the rover begins its second year of exploration.

So far, the rover and its two-year planned mission have brought back several finds to scientists back on Earth, including the discovery of evidence that ancient Mars could have supported life, according to NASA.

Soil analysis

“Looking back to a year ago, I don’t think that anybody could have predicted how well the mission would go,” Rick Welch, the mission manager at the JPL, told eWEEK.

Other rovers have visited Mars in the past, but none before have had the capabilities to dig into the Martian soil and them analyse the soil and rock using an on-board laboratory. That changed with Curiosity, said Welch.

nasa“To actually scoop up the soil and get samples, it has been an incredible invention and adventure,” he said. To accomplish this, the latest rover is the size of an SUV back on Earth, so it had to be brought to the Martian surface gingerly so it wasn’t destroyed on impact last August.

Once landed, the scientists initially took a bit of a detour with the rover because it landed in an area with geology they wanted to explore, said Welch. “When we saw where we actually landed, at this conjunction of three different terrain types just east of the planned landing site, it made sense to look at this area first. We spent the better part of the year exploring that area.”

That resulted in a six- to seven-month detour to explore an area around an ancient river system, which is now dry, in a valley that’s called Peace Vallis. There, the rover found the remnants of a former river, which spread out across the crater floor like a fan, where conditions could have existed for life on Mars.

That discovery was important, said Welch. “It really gives us good evidence of a habitable environment, and that’s what this mission is all about,” he said.

Halfway point

So far, the rover is doing very well on the Martian surface, said Welch, who is a 20-year veteran of rover missions. “The systems have been working well as a whole, meeting expectations. It’s been great.”

The one-year landing anniversary for the rover occurs early in the morning on 6 August, which officially will mark the halfway point for the planned activities of the two-year mission.

The JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, and manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C., according to NASA. The JPL designed and built the project’s Curiosity rover.

Since landing, Curiosity has so far sent more than 190 gigabits of data back to Earth, and has sent back more than 36,700 full images and 35,000 thumbnail images, according to NASA. The equipment on board the rover has also fired more than 75,000 laser shots to investigate the composition of targets, collected and analysed sample material from two rocks, and driven more than 1 mile (1.6 kilometers), according to the space agency.

In July, the Curiosity rover began a long-awaited, 5-mile-long journey across the terrain of the red planet to begin exploring a rocky area known as Mount Sharp, 11 months after the rover arrived on the planet’s surface.

Ancient environment

The Mount Sharp destination, which is in the middle of what’s known as Gale Crater, is important to scientists working on the mission because it exposes many layers where scientists anticipate finding evidence about how the ancient Martian environment changed and evolved, according to the JPL.

The rover is expected to take nine months to a year to reach Mount Sharp, due to the care that must be used in crossing the unknown terrain. Since landing on Mars on 6 August, 2012, the rover has been undergoing testing, software updates and initial experiments on soil samples on the surface of the planet.

At the end of June, it conducted a close-up investigation of a target sedimentary outcrop of rock called Shaler, according to NASA, then began heading away from Shaler on 4 July. The vehicle travels very slowly, initially traveling 59 feet away from Shaler that day, then adding another 131-foot excursion away from the site on 7 July. Both trips put the rover on a course heading to Mount Sharp, which sits about 5 miles away, NASA reported.

In June, NASA released a spectacular 1.3 billion-pixel image of the surface of Mars, which was stitched together from almost 900 images taken by special cameras mounted on the Curiosity rover. The image can be explored using panning and scanning tools on NASA’s Website.

“The full-circle scene surrounds the site where Curiosity collected its first scoops of dusty sand at a windblown patch called ‘Rocknest’, and extends to Mount Sharp on the horizon,” according to NASA.

Rock-melting laser

The images used to create the massive photograph include some 850 frames taken using the telephoto camera of Curiosity’s Mast Camera instrument, supplemented with 21 frames from the Mastcam’s wider-angle camera and 25 black-and-white frames from the on-board Navigation Camera, according to NASA. The images were taken from October to November of 2012.

Curiosity successfully fired its rock-melting laser for the first time on 19 August, 2012, as it ran through tests to be sure that the work of its science experiments would be able to proceed as planned. The rover has been taking photographs on Mars since arriving after a 354-million-mile, eight-month voyage from Earth.

One of Curiosity’s main tasks on Mars is checking for organic compounds, the carbon-containing chemicals that can be ingredients for life, according to NASA.

NASA’s continuing exploration of Mars with scientific rovers on the red planet’s surface will continue into 2020, when the space agency plans to launch another robotic science rover based on its successful Curiosity rover as part of a “robust multi-year programme” aimed at preparing the nation’s space program to send humans to a Mars orbit by the 2030s.

The 2020 Mars rover programme, which has not yet been named, would reuse designs, parts and technology from the current Curiosity rover. By reusing Curiosity’s successful blueprints, the space agency expects to save money in development costs, while continuing its exploration of the planet.

Full details of what that 2020 Mars mission will entail have not yet been determined. The specific payload and science instruments for the mission will be debated and selected later through an open competition after the scientific objectives for the mission have been formulated, according to NASA. The mission will also be contingent on receiving adequate funding.

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Originally published on eWeek.