Mars Rover Curiosity Ends First Year On Mars, Prepares For Year Two
August 4, 2013

Curiosity Rover Set To Begin Second Year Of Mars Mission

[ Watch the Video: Twelve Months in Two Minutes - Curiosity's First Year on Mars ]

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

This week marks the one-year anniversary of the NASA Curiosity rover's arrival on Mars, and the start of its search for evidence suggesting that the Red Planet was once capable of supporting microbial life.

Curiosity, which lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex 41 in November 2011, touched down in Gale Crater on August 6, 2012 (or August 5, for those living in the Pacific Time zone). Its primary mission was expected to last 23-months, but within the first eight months, it had accomplished its first major objective.

On March 12, 2013, the US space agency announced that the rover had uncovered the first evidence that Mars once had conditions hospitable to life. They revealed that power drilled out of a sedimentary rock by Curiosity showed presence of sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon - all of which are key chemical ingredients for life.

Curiosity made its first drill into "John Klein" rock on February 8, 2013, and drilled a hole that was 0.63-inch wide and 2.5-inches deep. The six-wheeled rover then extended its arm and collected a sample of the rock to deliver for analysis inside its Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) and Chemistry and Mineralogy (ChemMin) instruments. Once the rock sample was heated by the SAM instrument in a quartz oven to 1,535 degrees Fahrenheit, it showed the presence of water, carbon dioxide, oxygen, sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide.

As if already meeting its primary science goal was not enough, the rover has sent back more than 190 gigabits worth of data during its first 12 months on Mars, including over 70,000 images, according to NBC News Science Editor Alan Boyle. It has also fired in excess of 75,000 laser shots to study the composition of Martian rocks and soil, he added.

"What we found was surprisingly good, and surprisingly in line with the mission's objective of looking for habitable environments in early Mars history," Ashwin Vasavada, deputy project scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission, told Boyle. "The complication is that we underestimated the time it took to do these tasks with the rover by a large fraction - maybe by a factor of two."

In June, a study led by MSL scientists revealed the discovery of sand grains and small stones that were too heavy to be moved by the wind - suggesting the presence of ancient water on the Red Planet. In addition, images collected by Curiosity were stitched together in order to create GigaPan, the first-ever billion-pixel mosaic of the Martian surface within Gale Crater.

In July, NASA announced that Curiosity had surpassed the one kilometer mark in total distance traveled, and a study based on information collected by the SAM instrument shed new light on how Mars had lost its original atmosphere. Later on that month, on Sunday, July 21, the rover completed its longest drive to date, traveling 110 yards in a single day.

However, Curiosity isn't just about capturing images and providing scientific research data - it has also captured the public's imagination, sometimes in unexpected ways. Its landing was broadcast live in New York's Times Square, and its August touchdown gave birth to the Internet phenomenon that is "Mohawk Man" - aka 32-year-old flight engineer and Oakland, California native known as Bobak Ferdowski.

As it prepares to celebrate the one-year anniversary of its time on Mars, Curiosity is en route to the base of Mount Sharp, where NASA officials report that it will investigate lower layers of a mountain that rises three miles from the floor of the crater.

"We now know Mars offered favorable conditions for microbial life billions of years ago," mission project scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) said in a statement. "It has been gratifying to succeed, but that has also whetted our appetites to learn more. We hope those enticing layers at Mount Sharp will preserve a broad diversity of other environmental conditions that could have affected habitability."

"In preparation for the one year anniversary of Curiosity's landing on Mars," NASA officials are urging social media users "share their memories and thoughts with the hashtag #1YearOnMars," noted Jon M. Chang of ABC News. "Though it hasn't made the top trending topics yet, the hashtag is going strong on Twitter and picking up steam on Facebook."

See a map of Curiosity's travel here.