Curiosity: One Year And Counting
Curiosity touched down on Mars August 5, 2012 in what NASA had called “Seven Minutes of Terror.” This landing was the most complicated in NASA’s history of landing rovers, having to slow down the rover from 13,000 miles per hour to essentially zero within seven minutes.
The rover first stepped foot on Mars with hopes of finding out whether the Red Planet ever had past conditions to host life. Curiosity began its first venture on August 22, 2012, moving forward about 15 feet, rotating 120 degrees and then reversing about 8 feet. These simple procedures marked an important milestone for the rover in ensuring it was going to be able to traverse the Martian terrain.
NASA had to put the rover through the works in order to have confidence Curiosity was a going to be able to handle its mission. Curiosity first stretched out its 7-foot arm on August 20, then later completed tests on the arm in September, setting the rover up to begin exploring rocks on the Martian surface like never before.
Curiosity’s arm hosts a suite of instruments, including the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera, which is able to snap the sharpest images ever taken on Mars. In January, the instrument was able to snap the first nocturnal image of a rock on Mars, showing off part of the rock that was scuffed by Curiosity’s front-wheel to provide fresh, dust-free material for examination.
[ Watch the Video: Twelve Months in Two Minutes – Curiosity’s First Year on Mars ]
In October 2012, Curiosity took its first Martian soil sample into its laboratory so it could be analyzed by its Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument. The sample was part of the third scoop taken by Curiosity at a site named “Rocknest.”
By November 26 last year, the rover’s one-year anniversary since it left Earth, Curiosity had sent back more than 23,000 raw images and driven nearly 1,700 feet. A month later, the rover used its full array of instruments to analyze Martian soil for the first time, yielding to a big discovery.
On December 3, 2012 NASA said that Curiosity was able to find complex chemistry within the Martian soil. The rover found water, sulfur and chlorine-containing substances in the soil samples. This discovery helped scientists see what Curiosity was capable of.
Only a few months after the complex rover successfully landed on Mars, NASA engineers readied Curiosity for rock drilling, which eventually led to the biggest discovery so far less than a year after the mission began. In February, Curiosity became the first rover to ever drill into bedrock and collect a sample on Mars. The rover’s MacGyver-like arm contains a drill at the end of it, which was used to peer deep into Mars’ ancient history.
After analyzing material taken from the 0.63-inch by 2.5-inch hole left on the John Klein rock on Mars, NASA proudly announced that the primary mission objective for its prized rover had already been accomplished, just seven months after landing. Scientists said they had found the presence of sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon, all key chemical ingredients for life that show the Red Planet had indeed once held an environment suitable for life.
A few months later, Curiosity began its second drilling attempt on the Cumberland rock, then went on a hiatus as the sun interrupted transmission between it and Earth. The rover awoke from its vacation with new insights about how Mars lost its original atmosphere. Scientists used results from the rover’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, which measured the abundances of different gases and isotopes in samples from Martian air.
Curiosity surpassed the one kilometer (0.62 mile) mark on July 16 during its 335th work day on Mars. As of last week the rover has driven a total of 0.81 miles and counting.
After wrapping up a year, Rick Welch, a Curiosity mission manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who was a leader of the team that built and tested the rover before launch, had this to tell redOrbit:
“Excited, worried, invigorated, tired – but most of all proud to be part of the team that could make such scientific exploration of the surface of another planet possible. It has been very rewarding for me to see Curiosity actually do the mission she was designed for. MSL really is a mission of discovery and I don’t think anyone could have predicted what we would or would not accomplish in our first year. I think it has been a great first year and I am looking forward to continuing the journey wherever it takes us.”
With thousands of photos, loads of data and plenty of mission to go, Curiosity is opening up Mars to scientists in a way that never has been done before. The rover has made the Red Planet more accessible from Earth than astronomers like Galileo Galilei could have even imagined. Curiosity is now a year deep into its primary mission, and is looking like it will be trekking across the reddish Martian soil for many years to come.
Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech