TOPICS > Science

New Discoveries From NASA’s ‘Curiosity’ Rover’s Mission to Mars

February 8, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Spencer Michels has the story of NASA's newest rover vehicle, aptly named "Curiosity," and its mission to Mars. Curiosity has made some new discoveries, begging the age-old question, does life exist on the red planet?
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JEFFREY BROWN: And now some news from one of our planetary neighbors. Scientists are calling what they have found recently on Mars amazing. NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels reports on the latest discoveries.

SPENCER MICHELS: At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, scientists and engineers cheered when a vehicle designed to roam across Mars landed last August in an area called the Gale Crater, practically right on target. It was an amazing feat, putting a one-ton rover the size of a car onto the Martian surface.

The trip took eight-and-a-half months and the project cost $2.5 billion dollars. The rover, called Curiosity, has been on Mars for nearly six months now, and it is sending back results. High-resolution photos coming from the surface of the planet are like nothing man has ever seen before, and scientists believe they could shed light on whether life ever existed on the fourth rock from the sun.

At JPL’s lab, where a duplicate of Curiosity is used for testing, space scientist and engineer Adam Steltzner says the geologists are fired up over what they can see from 17 cameras mounted on the recently landed rover.

ADAM STELTZNER, Lead Landing Engineer: It’s fantastic. You know, one thing about putting a rover on the surface of Mars is you get images of the surface that you can never get from orbiters, right? You resolve down to the millimeter level. You get right up, up close and personal with the Martian terrain, and whenever we do that, we learn new things.

SPENCER MICHELS: The cracks in the surface indicate where water once flowed water, water which deputy project scientist Ashwin Vasavada says is essential for life.

ASHWIN VASAVADA, Deputy Project Scientist: We have already made a few discoveries. We sent this rover to discover habitable environments on Mars, and we did discover one already early in the mission. We found that we landed right on an ancient streambed, where water was once flowing kind of up to your kneecaps.

SPENCER MICHELS: 100 percent sure it was water, the kind of water we have on Earth?

ASHWIN VASAVADA: I wouldn’t say 100 percent, but it’s the most likely thing. You know, we know that there’s water on Mars frozen in ice today. And in the past, we think the conditions were more that liquid water could have been stable.

SPENCER MICHELS: Curiosity is embarking on a new task on Mars, after practicing on Earth, drilling into Martian rocks for the first time. Using remotely controlled tools built into the rover, NASA will bore into rocks to find out what they’re made of and if they contain clues to life on the red planet.

ASHWIN VASAVADA: This whole arm, in a sort of series of Tai chi moves, moves around and sieves that powder, and then dumps it into some inlets that are on the top of the rover deck, so that instruments which are inside the rover can analyze it for its chemistry.

SPENCER MICHELS: The Mars mission wouldn’t have been possible without a safe landing on the red planet by the rover Curiosity. And the team leader for the lander design was Steltzner, a former rock ‘n’ roll musician who seems an unlikely hero in this space drama.

Today at 40, he’s married with two kids, has a home in the suburbs, and holds science and engineering degrees from several top schools. But back in the day, Steltzner was anything but a promising scientist. He was playing drums in a rock band and wasn’t paying much attention to school.

ADAM STELTZNER: I passed geometry with an F-plus, because the teacher didn’t want to see me a second time. Actually, she didn’t want to see me a third time.

SPENCER MICHELS: You were more interested in what?

ADAM STELTZNER: Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll was what I was focusing on in high school, chasing ladies and socializing, which was great, because what that meant was, later on in life, when I got interested in really learning about the universe and going to college, I was sort of — I had got the — all of that stuff out of my system and I could really focus.

SPENCER MICHELS: Steltzner got serious about school and space after looking up at the sky one night.

ADAM STELTZNER: It was only in my early 20s when I was a little bored with music that I noticed the stars moved in the sky at night, and they were in a different place when I was returning home from playing a gig as they had been when I went out to play the gig.

SPENCER MICHELS: He decided to take astronomy at Marin Community College in California, but first he had to take physics.

ADAM STELTZNER: I took that physics course. It blew my mind and really changed the course of my life.

SPENCER MICHELS: The rest is history.

Eventually, he learned to tackle big projects, like landing Curiosity on Mars, a vehicle far bigger than previous Mars rovers.

ADAM STELTZNER: This is huge. It’s titanic. And, so, when I look at this, I still kind of get goose bumps that we tried to and evidently succeeded putting something that big on the surface of Mars.

SPENCER MICHELS: After discarding a variety of landing models that had been used before, Steltzner’s team came up with a complex system where the rover was lowered on tethers from a sky crane made of rockets that then flew away before they could stir up the Martian dust.

NASA calls the landing seven minutes of terror.

Were you terrified?

ADAM STELTZNER: Yes, you’re definitely terrified, absolutely terrified, very gripped, stomach in knots, staring at the data. And then I actually started to almost be surprised because it was going so smoothly.

SPENCER MICHELS: But now that the excitement is over, Steltzner has discovered that what appeared to be a perfect landing was actually slightly flawed.

ADAM STELTZNER: Upon closer inspection, we actually can see places where some luck was involved.

SPENCER MICHELS: What didn’t work as perfectly as you wanted it to?

ADAM STELTZNER: Well, it ends up being that we needed to understand the local gravity at Mars. We actually landed softer than we had planned.

SPENCER MICHELS: Slower?

ADAM STELTZNER: Slower, more slowly than we had planned, and that error in the local gravity could easily have had us land faster than we had planned to, and that may have been more challenging for the rover to handle.

SPENCER MICHELS: More challenging? It could have broke it.

ADAM STELTZNER: It could have broken the rover.

SPENCER MICHELS: Fuk Li, manager of the NASA’s Mars exploration program, still calls the landing a success.

FUK LI, Mars Exploration: We landed safely. It was within the envelope of how we designed the system to do, and — but we still want to go back to the data and see what we can learn for next time. 

SPENCER MICHELS: Next time may be 2020. That’s when NASA recently announced it’s planning another trip to Mars in a vehicle that will be similar to, but cheaper than Curiosity. The principal aim, says Li, is to continue the long search for signs of life.

FUK LI: The question is, could Mars have been habitable, and, if so, did life arise? And, frankly, some of these measurements that we’re making might be — eventually be useful for a human explorer that will be going to Mars one day.

SPENCER MICHELS: Steltzner has other heavenly bodies in his sights. He wants to design new landers that could touch down on a comet, and on Europa, a moon of Jupiter.

ADAM STELTZNER: This is an ice moon of Jupiter’s that we believe has a liquid water ocean, and we think is the mostly likely place in the solar system to have life today. So, I would like to put a lander on the surface of Europa and see what we find.

SPENCER MICHELS: You really think there might be life on Europa?

ADAM STELTZNER: I’m not an exobiologist, but I know some exobiologists. I drink beer with exobiologists, and those exobiologists think that Europa’s a great source, a great potential source for existent life today. The life would be down underneath the ice in this liquid ocean warmed by the tidal — tidal action of Jupiter.

SPENCER MICHELS: Mission Director Li says NASA is studying the idea, though recent proposed budget cuts could kill it. So far, Curiosity hasn’t turned up any evidence of past or present life in Martian dirt.

But NASA will have plenty to analyze from the rover over the next few years. Eventually, scientists want to bring back to Earth a soil or rock sample so they could analyze it in a real lab. It’s unclear if the 2020 mission will include that capability.

JEFFREY BROWN: And there’s more on this story online, where scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory explain why it’s important to go back and explore the same place again and again. That’s on our website.