NASA’s Curiosity rover has reached an important milestone: the robot celebrates the 10th anniversary of its landing on Mars on August 5, 2012.
Over the decade, the rover has significantly advanced our understanding of the Red Planet through its exploration and research. Curiositythe main objective of the mission was to determine whether or not March was once habitable. In previous missions, scientists had already determined that water was once present on Mars and, in fact, is currently present on Mars in the form of ice. But water alone is not enough to sustain life.
“To determine habitability, you have to know if there were things like organic molecules – carbon-containing molecules that life needs – sources of energy, other molecules that life needs, like nitrogen, phosphorus, oxygen,” Curiosity project assistant scientist Abigail Fraeman, who is also a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, told Space.com. “And we discovered that it was all there.”
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In order to find these key habitability signatures on Mars, Curiosity takes with it tools for drilling the planet’s surface and spectrometers like the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) and Chemistry and Mineralogy (Chemin) that can analyze resulting samples. During the rover’s first years on the planet, it had already discovered the key requirements of life.
“So we found, first, that Mars was habitable, and second, that these habitable environments persisted for tens of millions of years, very likely, maybe even hundreds of millions of years, which was surprising and exciting,” Fraeman said.
The rover’s research of Mars rock and soil has also provided new insights into groundwater cycles on Mars. “All the rocks we have passed through show not only the signature of water when they were initially deposited, but this later superimposition of one or two or dozens of cycles of groundwater flowing through the rocks,” said Fraeman. “And so it really highlighted the importance of groundwater on Mars, which would have been a really important process.”
But in a decade of exploration, Curiosity has discovered much more than the building blocks of life. “One of the kinds of science that doesn’t get mentioned a lot, but is really important and really interesting is the environmental science that we do,” Fraeman said.
Curiosity has radiation detectors and environmental and atmospheric sensors that have been put to good use on Mars. For example, throughout its wanderings, when Curiosity approached geological formations such as cliffs and buttes, the rover’s instruments detected that the rocks blocked radiation from reaching it. “We can now use it for models of future astronauts. For example, can you use natural terrain as a shield?” Fraeman said.
She is also captivated by Curiosity’s study of Martian weather, noting that last year Curiosity photographed beautiful clouds known as night cloudswhich appear at sunset in winter.
Although Curiosity’s original mission timeline lasted just under two Earth years, a decade later the rover continues to be in relatively good health – good enough to continue its work. “We have a bit of arthritis, a bit of joint pain,” Fraeman said. Its wheels, for example, have developed a lot of holes after approximately 17.5 miles (28 kilometers) of travel with an elevation gain of 2,000 feet (600 meters). But Fraeman noted that the wheels were accumulating damage at a relatively slow rate, allowing Curiosity to keep moving.
“I think what’s most remarkable to me is that all the science instruments are basically working as well as they did when we landed,” she said. “We’re still able to do the same quality and breadth of science as 10 years ago, and that’s pretty amazing.”
The next step for Curiosity is an investigation into what happened to Mars’ once habitable climate and how long the region remained habitable when the water began to dry up. While the rover has spent the past decade exploring lake environments — most recently, an area where sand dunes formed when lakes disappeared — the team is now sending the explorer even higher up Mount Sharp.
“We’re so close to hitting what we call the Layered-Sulfate Unit, which is a completely different part of Mount Sharp,” Fraeman said. “We see from orbit that it has a different texture, a different mineralogy, and we think that’s going to represent a very different environmental weather on Mars. We’re excited to see exactly what that environmental change was, how it is reflected in the rock record, and what that means for livability.”
But before Curiosity gets to all that, the team is going to spend some time celebrating the anniversary. “Those of us who are local to Pasadena, we’re going to have a party. We’re going to buy Thai food, we’re going to have a raffle,” Fraeman said. “I think it will just be a joyful occasion to celebrate accomplishments and hopefully look forward to more fun science.”