The evening of August 5, 2012…five years ago…our Mars Curiosity rover landed on the Red Planet.
Arriving at Mars at 10:32 p.m. PDT (morning of Aug 6 EDT), this rover would prove to be the most technologically advanced rover ever built.
Curiosity used a series of complicated landing maneuvers never before attempted.
The specialized landing sequence, which employed a giant parachute, a jet-controlled descent vehicle and a daring “sky crane” maneuver similar to rappelling was devised because testing and landing techniques used during previous rover missions could not safely accommodate the much larger and heavier rover.
Curiosity’s mission: To determine whether the Red Planet ever was, or is, habitable to microbial life.
The car-size rover is equipped with 17 cameras, a robotic arm, specialized instruments and an on-board laboratory.
Let’s explore Curiosity’s top 5 discoveries since she landed on Mars five years ago…
1. Gale Crater had conditions suitable for life about 3.5 billion years ago
In 2013, Curiosity’s analysis of a rock sample showed that ancient Mars could have supported living microbes. Scientists identified sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon – some of the key chemical ingredients for life – in the powder Curiosity drilled out of a sedimentary rock near an ancient stream bed in Gale Crater.
Later, in 2014, Curiosity discovered that these conditions lasted for millions of years, perhaps much longer. This interpretation of Curiosity’s findings in Gale Crater suggests ancient Mars maintained a climate that could have produced long-lasting lakes at many locations on the Red Planet.
2. Organic molecules detected at several locations
In 2014, our Curiosity rover drilled into the Martian surface and detected different organic chemicals in the rock powder. This was the first definitive detection of organics in surface materials of Mars. These Martian organics could either have formed on Mars or been delivered to Mars by meteorites.
Curiosity’s findings from analyzing samples of atmosphere and rock powder do not reveal whether Mars has ever harbored living microbes, but the findings do shed light on a chemically active modern Mars and on favorable conditions for life on ancient Mars.
3. Present and active methane in Mars’ atmosphere
Also in 2014, our Curiosity rover measured a tenfold spike in methane, an organic chemical, in the atmosphere around the planet. This temporary increase in methane tells us there must be some relatively localized source.
Researchers used Curiosity’s onboard Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) laboratory a dozen times in a 20-month period to sniff methane in the atmosphere. During two of those months, in late 2013 and early 2014, four measurements averaged seven parts per billion.
4. Radiation could pose health risks for humans
Measurements taken by our Curiosity rover since launch have provided us with the information needed to design systems to protect human explorers from radiation exposure on deep-space expeditions in the future. Curiosity’s Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) was the first instrument to measure the radiation environment during a Mars cruise mission from inside a spacecraft that is similar to potential human exploration spacecraft.
The findings indicate radiation exposure for human explorers could exceed our career limit for astronauts if current propulsion systems are used. These measurements are being used to better understand how radiation travels through deep space and how it is affected and changed by the spacecraft structure itself. This, along with research on the International Space Station are helping us develop countermeasures to the impacts of radiation on the human body.
5. A thicker atmosphere and more water in Mars past
In 2015, Curiosity discovered evidence that has led scientists to conclude that ancient Mars was once a warmer, wetter place than it is today.
To produce this more temperate climate, several researchers have suggested that the planet was once shrouded in a much thicker carbon dioxide atmosphere. You may be asking…Where did all the carbon go?
The solar wind stripped away much of Mars’ ancient atmosphere and is still removing tons of it every day. That said, 3.8 billion years ago, Mars might have had a moderately dense atmosphere, with a surface pressure equal to or less than that found on Earth.
Our Curiosity rover continues to explore the Red Planet today. On average, the rover travels about 30 meters per hour and is currently on the lower slope of Mount Sharp.
Get regular updates on the Curiosity mission by following @MarsCuriosity on Twitter.
Here are 10 perspective-building images for your computer desktop and mobile device wallpaper.
These are all real images, sent very recently by our planetary missions throughout the solar system.
1. Our Sun
Warm up with this view from our Solar Dynamics Observatory showing active regions on the Sun in October 2017. They were observed in a wavelength of extreme ultraviolet light that reveals plasma heated to over a million degrees.
This look from our Curiosity Mars rover includes several geological layers in Gale crater to be examined by the mission, as well as the higher reaches of Mount Sharp beyond. The redder rocks of the foreground are part of the Murray formation. Pale gray rocks in the middle distance of the right half of the image are in the Clay Unit. A band between those terrains is “Vera Rubin Ridge,” where the rover is working currently. The view combines six images taken with the rover’s Mast Camera (Mastcam) on Jan. 24, 2017.
Cassini peers toward a sliver of Saturn’s sunlit atmosphere while the icy rings stretch across the foreground as a dark band on March 31, 2017. This view looks toward the unilluminated side of the rings from about 7 degrees below the ring plane.
This image of the limb of dwarf planet Ceres shows a section of the northern hemisphere, as seen by our Dawn mission. Prominently featured is Occator Crater, home of Ceres’ intriguing “bright spots.” The latest research suggests that the bright material in this crater is comprised of salts left behind after a briny liquid emerged from below.
This image from our Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) shows a crater in the region with the most impressive known gully activity in Mars’ northern hemisphere. Gullies are active in the winter due to carbon dioxide frost, but northern winters are shorter and warmer than southern winters, so there is less frost and less gully activity.
A dynamic storm at the southern edge of Jupiter’s northern polar region dominates this Jovian cloudscape, courtesy of Juno. This storm is a long-lived anticyclonic oval named North North Temperate Little Red Spot 1. Citizen scientists Gerald Eichstädt and Seán Doran processed this image using data from the JunoCam imager.
Saturn’s active, ocean-bearing moon Enceladus sinks behind the giant planet in a farewell portrait from Cassini. This view of Enceladus was taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft on Sept. 13, 2017. It is among the last images Cassini sent back before its mission came to an end on Sept. 15, after nearly 20 years in space.
Applying Wallpaper: 1. Click on the screen resolution you would like to use. 2. Right-click on the image (control-click on a Mac) and select the option ‘Set the Background’ or 'Set as Wallpaper’ (or similar).
Every day, our spacecraft and people are exploring the solar system. Both the public and the private sectors are contributing to the quest. For example, here are ten things happening just this week:
1. We deliver.
The commercial space company Orbital ATK is targeting Saturday, Nov. 11 for the launch of its Cygnus spacecraft on an Antares rocket from Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Virginia. Cygnus is launching on a resupply mission to the International Space Station, carrying cargo and scientific experiments to the six people currently living on the microgravity laboratory.
Our Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) sure does—and from very close range. This robotic spacecraft has been orbiting Earth’s companion since 2009, returning views of the lunar surface that are so sharp they show the footpaths made by Apollo astronauts. Learn more about LRO and the entire history of lunar exploration at NASA’s newly-updated, expanded Moon site: moon.nasa.gov
4. Meanwhile at Mars…
Another sharp-eyed robotic spacecraft has just delivered a fresh batch of equally detailed images. Our Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) surveys the Red Planet’s surface daily, and you can see the very latest pictures of those exotic landscapes HERE. We currently operate five—count ‘em, five—active missions at Mars, with another (the InSight lander) launching next year. Track them all at: mars.nasa.gov.
5. Always curious.
One of those missions is the Curiosity rover. It’s currently climbing a rocky highland dubbed Vera Rubin Ridge, turning its full array of instruments on the intriguing geology there. Using those instruments, Curiosity can see things you and I can’t.
6. A new Dawn.
Our voyage to the asteroid belt has a new lease on life. The Dawn spacecraft recently received a mission extension to continue exploring the dwarf planet Ceres. This is exciting because minerals containing water are widespread on Ceres, suggesting it may have had a global ocean in the past. What became of that ocean? Could Ceres still have liquid today? Ongoing studies from Dawn could shed light on these questions.
7. There are eyes everywhere.
When our Mars Pathfinder touched down in 1997, it had five cameras: two on a mast that popped up from the lander, and three on the rover, Sojourner. Since then, photo sensors that were improved by the space program have shrunk in size, increased in quality and are now carried in every cellphone. That same evolution has returned to space. Our Mars 2020 mission will have more “eyes” than any rover before it: a grand total of 23, to create sweeping panoramas, reveal obstacles, study the atmosphere, and assist science instruments.
8. Voyage to a hidden ocean.
One of the most intriguing destinations in the solar system is Jupiter’s moon Europa, which hides a global ocean of liquid water beneath its icy shell. Our Europa Clipper mission sets sail in the 2020s to take a closer look than we’ve ever had before. You can explore Europa, too: europa.nasa.gov
9. Flight of the mockingbird.
On Nov. 10, the main belt asteroid 19482 Harperlee, named for the legendary author of To Kill a Mockingbird, makes its closest approach to Earth during the asteroid’s orbit around the Sun. Details HERE. Learn more about asteroids HERE. Meanwhile, our OSIRIS-REx mission is now cruising toward another tiny, rocky world called Bennu.
10. What else is up this month?
For sky watchers, there will be a pre-dawn pairing of Jupiter and Venus, the Moon will shine near some star clusters, and there will be meteor activity all month long. Catch our monthly video blog for stargazers HERE.
In fact, this summer brings several red letter days in Red Planet exploration. Here are 10 things to know about the anniversary of the Curiosity landing—plus some other arrivals at Mars you may not know about.
This self-portrait of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle at a drilled sample site called “Okoruso,” on the “Naukluft Plateau” of lower Mount Sharp. The scene combines multiple images taken with the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on May 11, 2016. Credit: NASA/JPL-CALTECH/MSSS
1. Seven Minutes of Terror
For Curiosity, landing on Mars meant slowing from about 13,000 MPH (21,000 KPH) to a full stop in just seven minutes. Engineers came up with an innovative–and bold–plan to make this happen, but no one could be 100% certain it would work. In this video, some of the Curiosity engineers who designed the entry, descent and landing system for the mission talk candidly about the challenges of Curiosity’s final moments before touchdown in August 2012.
What has Curiosity discovered during its roving so far? The key takeaway: the stark deserts of Gale Crater were once home to lakes and streams of liquid water, a place where life could potentially have thrived. Learn more about the mission’s scientific findings.
4. Pretty as a Postcard
Sometimes science can be beautiful, as pictures from Mars prove. You can peruse some of Curiosity’s best shots. What’s more, you can see the very latest images—often on the same day they’re downlinked from Mars.
5. Take It for a Spin
Have you ever wanted to try driving a Mars rover yourself? You can (virtually anyway). Try the Experience Curiosity app right in your web browser.
6. Mars Trekking
Maybe someday you’ll be able to take a day hike across the Martian landscape. You can at least plan your route right now, using NASA’s Mars Trek site. This interactive mapping tool lets you explore important Red Planet locations using actual terrain imagery from orbiting satellites. You can even retrace the real locations on Mars where the fictional astronaut Mark Watney traveled in “The Martian.”
7. A First Time for Everything
Curiosity stands (well, rolls) on the shoulders of giants. Several NASA missions blazed the trail for the current crop of robotic explorers. The first was Mariner 4, which is also celebrating an anniversary this summer. Mariner 4 was the first spacecraft to return photos of another planet from deep space when it flew by Mars on July 15, 1965. Mariner engineers were so impatient to see the first pictures it sent back, that they hand-colored a printout of raw numeric data sent by the spacecraft, in order to construct one of the first color images of Mars.
8. Pathfinders and Panoramas
Another important pathfinder on Mars was…Mars Pathfinder. This mission just marked its 20th anniversary. To commemorate the first successful Mars rover, NASA created a new 360-degree VR panorama of its landing site you can view right in your browser.
9. One Small Step for a Robot
The first spacecraft to make a successful landing on Mars was Viking 1, which touched down in the Chryse Planitia region on July 20, 1976. It worked for more than six years, performing the first Martian soil analysis using its robotic arm and an onbaord biological laboratory. While it found no conclusive evidence of life, Viking 1 did help us understand Mars as a planet with volcanic soil, a thin, dry carbon dioxide atmosphere and striking evidence for ancient river beds and vast flooding.
Curious learners go deep, and they go wide. Consequently, they are the ones whose jobs are least likely to be taken by intelligent machines. In a world where technology is rapidly replacing humans even in white-collar jobs, it’s no longer enough to be merely smart. Computers are smart. But no computer, however sophisticated, can yet be said to be curious.
Ian Leslie, Curious: Your Desire To Know And Why Your Future Depends On It