Relive Curiosity's greatest accomplishments from its first year on Mars


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August 6, 2012 was a terrifyingly exciting day for the men and women of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. After years of planning and several months of space travel, Curiosity had finally reached Mars, and just seven minutes would decide if the robot would land safely on the surface. We all held our breath...and just like that the rover had touched down, safe and sound.

Curiosity has been a very busy rover since it landed on the Red Planet a year ago, so we figured that we would help commemorate this momentous occasion by recounting some of the rover's most noteworthy achievements.

Curiosity’s first steps

Once the rover had successfully landed, the team behind Curiosity had little time to celebrate. Over the next few weeks, JPL scientists ran some initial tests and had Curiosity work on some very basic photography as they prepared to put the rover in motion.

We also got our first taste of freakin’ space lasers as Curiosity tested its ChemCam—an on-board instrument that zaps rocks with a laser to determine their composition—on a small, hapless piece of stone. After zapping the rock, the ChemCam used its telescope to observe the elements contained within. Curiosity didn't find anything particularly noteworthy with this test shot, but it proved that the ChemCam was fully operational.

Before we knew it though, the rover had finally begun roving as it slowly traveled away from Bradbury Landing, the site where it touched down.

Curiosity meets a rock named Jake.

Signs of (past) life

According to NASA, the primary goal of the Curiosity mission is to find “evidence of a past environment well suited to supporting microbial life,” and within eight months, this mission had been accomplished.

The first big step down this road was to find a suitable subject with which to test Curiosity’s instruments. NASA chose a strange-looking rock named for late NASA engineer Jake Matijevic for this task, and Curiosity put its Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) and the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera to use. It also blasted a piece of the rock with an onboard laser and collected the remnants to calibrate the instruments on its arms.

In September, Curiosity stumbled upon an ancient streambed, some of the most conclusive evidence yet that water once flowed on the surface of Mars. Curiosity science co-investigator William Dietrich stated that this was “the first time we're actually seeing water-transported gravel on Mars.” This direct observation has helped NASA better understand the mechanics behind water that once flowed on Mars.

Curiosity scoops up a rock sample.

A month later, Curiosity collected a soil sample that showed that Martian soil is very similar to the basaltic soil of volcanic origin in Hawaii. It was an exciting development for Curiosity's team, but a result that the team says was not unexpected. The experiment also indicated that the soil had once been part of a wet environment, providing more evidence that water once flowed through the area.

The continued adventures...

Over the next several months, Curiosity really got down to business.

In January, NASA announced that the Curiosity rover would begin drilling into the surface of Mars once it reached the “John Klein” rock formation. This would be the first time the rover would drill into Mars, and it revealed that the rock contained sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon. It was just another piece of evidence that Mars might have once been able to support microbial life.

Curiosity’s second drilling subject, “Cumberland,” was even more productive than the first, as the rover had its previous experience to draw upon.

This image of an outcrop at the "Sheepbed" locality shows well-defined veins filled with whitish minerals, interpreted as calcium sulfate.

Bumps in the road

Unfortunately, it was inevitable that problems would crop up over the course of Curiosity’s extensive trek through the craters and mountains of Mars. In fact, shortly after the rover landed, NASA scientists discovered that one of the rover's wind sensors had been damaged during the landing process. All things considered, this was a very minor issue, and only temporarily affected the measurement capabilities of the rover.

The computer glitches that halted progress earlier this year were more worrying. The first involved memory corruption of one of Curiosity’s onboard computers. NASA Scientists had to put the rover into standby mode as they switched to the backup computer while the primary computer recovered. The second glitch was far less serious, but once again put Curiosity into standby mode for a time.

Although it was a relatively simple problem to fix, the Curiosity team needed to prepare for a month of silence in which the sun would block the path between the Earth and Mars. Curiosity was programmed to perform as little work as possible while remaining completely stationary during the blackout.

Thankfully, none of these roadblocks put the rover out of commission for extended periods of time, and each has served as a learning opportunity for the team.

Closer than ever to Mount Sharp

Mount Sharp in the distance.

Curiosity has gathered more evidence than NASA could have hoped for over the course of this first year on Mars. There will likely be many more stops on the way, but Curiosity continues to truck onwards to its most daunting destination: Mount Sharp. Be on the lookout for more news from the Curiosity team throughout the year, and relive the excitement with the JPL in its latest video.

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This story, "Relive Curiosity's greatest accomplishments from its first year on Mars" was originally published by TechHive.

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