Mars Rover Mission Team Celebrates One Year

BY Jenny Marder  August 5, 2013 at 2:14 PM EST

The Mars Curiosity Rover team celebrates on Aug. 5, 2012, inside the spaceflight operations facility at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as the first pictures appear on screen after a successful landing on Mars. Photo by Brian van der Brug-Pool/Getty Images

Just after 1:30 a.m. E.T., a year ago today, the one-ton, SUV-sized Mars Curiosity Rover spacecraft blasted into the Mars atmosphere at more than 13,000 miles an hour, deployed a supersonic parachute, fired eight rocket engines, unfurled a giant sky crane and lowered itself to the Martian soil. Almost immediately, the clever craft began beaming back images of its own shadow against the ground of its landing site, the Gale Crater.

Meanwhile, in mission control at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, blue-shirted engineers and scientists broke into furious applause, tears of relief, high fives, shouting and fist pumps. After the heart-pounding wait, it was a cacophony of pure joy.

Miles O’Brien covered the high-stakes entry, descent and landing here:

Since then, according to NASA, Curiosity “has provided more than 190 gigabits of data; returned more than 36,700 full images and 35,000 thumbnail images; fired more than 75,000 laser shots to investigate the composition of targets and collected and analyzed sample material from two rocks.”

It has been sniffing soil and atmosphere, drilling into rocks and snapping photos with its suite of 10 highly sophisticated scientific instruments.

It’s unearthed some interesting discoveries: stream bed deposits show that freshwater streams once flowed through the Gale Crater. And by drilling into rock on Mars, it has found evidence of a past environment — millions, possibly even billions of years ago — that was suitable for life.

This image from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on the rover shows downhill flow features on Mars called “linear gullies.” Image by NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

“This ancient wet environment was not harshly oxidizing, acidic or extremely salty,” wrote Joy Crisp, Deputy Project Scientist with the Mars Science Laboratory team during a recent conversation on Reddit. “All the necessary chemical building blocks were available.”

The six-wheeled roving science lab has inched about a mile so far, and has more than four miles to drive until it reaches the base of Mount Sharp, an 18,000-foot high mound that rises up from Gale Crater. Once it arrives, Curiosity will work its way up the lower flank of the mountain and through different rock layers, searching for more evidence of this past environment. Traveling from the ancient rocks at the base to the younger layers will also give clues as to how environmental conditions may have changed over time, Crisp said.

In early March, a hardware failure forced the team to switch to the rover’s backup computer, on which it’s now running.

The Reddit chat, hosted by an all-female sampling of the Mars Science Laboratory team, is a great read, and includes some fun inside intel. For example, the rover, like a sea vessel, is referred to using female pronouns. And while it’s mission is only two years, it’s built to survive much longer and carries enough fuel to last a decade. (The rover Opportunity, remember, was built for a 90-day mission and is still alive and roaming after nine years.) Still, Curiosity will probably never leave the vast Gale Crater, which stretches 96 miles across.

Oh, and if you’ve ever wondered what the Mars scientists and engineers do with their spare time, they “read scifi and watch scifi movies,” make quilts, umpire field hockey games, make Space Odyssey jokes and roast coffee beans, engineers revealed during the chat. And sometimes they hold dance parties.



QUICK BITES

  • Japan launched a talking humanoid robot astronaut into space on Sunday. The Christian Science Monitor reports, with video.

  • During the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption in Iceland, fine volcanic ash got into airplane engines, and “the new hot-burning engines can actually melt the ash on the rotors and interfere with operation of the engines,” according to Dork Sahagian of Lehigh University. Miles O’Brien reports for the National Science Foundation’s* Science Nation.

NOT SAFE FOR LUNCH

*The National Science Foundation is an underwriter of the NewsHour

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this post was changed to clarify that the Mars rover found evidence of a past environment on Mars that was suitable for life, not evidence of life itself.

Patti Parson contributed to this report.