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Curiosity’s Historic 2013 Journey, A Story Worth Telling

December 20, 2013
Image Caption: This mosaic of images from Curiosity's Mast Camera (Mastcam) shows geological features of the Yellowknife Bay formation. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

[ Watch the Video: Looking Back AT A Productive Year For Curiosity Rover ]

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

With a new year around the corner, redOrbit decided to take a look back at NASA’s most-prized rover’s accomplishments over the past year, looking at everything from breakthrough discoveries in Martian soil samples to Curiosity’s 100,00th laser shot.

Over the past year, Mars exploration has made the biggest headlines, particularly due to NASA’s Curiosity rover. This was the rover’s first full year on Mars, and even though its primary mission isn’t over yet, Curiosity has already accomplished what it set out to do.

Curiosity performed its first drill on a Martian rock back on February 8, drilling a 0.63-inch wide and 2.5-inches deep hole. The drilling was symbolic of what discoveries lay ahead for NASA’s first Martian geologist if it continued to dig. It was not only the first time a rover ever drilled into Martian bedrock, but it also led to the biggest discovery yet on the Red Planet.

After drilling, the rover’s arm delivered samples from the “John Klein” rock into its Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) and Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instruments. The sample was heated in a quartz oven to 1,535 degrees Fahrenheit, after which it revealed a huge clue into Mars’ history: the sample showed the Red Planet once had conditions that could have been favorable for life. This sample showed the presence of water, carbon dioxide, oxygen, sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, giving any believer in  extraterrestrials more weight to their argument.

“A fundamental question for this mission is whether Mars could have supported a habitable environment,” Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, said at the time of the discovery. “From what we know now, the answer is yes.”

In July, Curiosity provided some clues as to how Mars lost some of its original atmosphere. Researchers reported in the journal Science that Mars’ atmosphere escaped from the top, rather than due to the lower atmosphere interacting with the ground. NASA’s recently launched MAVEN mission will be helping to add more to the story of Mars’ lost atmosphere, and what it might have looked like.

Curiosity celebrated its first year on Mars back on August 6, during which time the rover performed the “Happy Birthday” song for itself. NASA said at the time that the rover had already traversed over one-mile across Mars, transmitted more than 190 gigabits of data to Earth and fired its laser more than 75,000 times at 2,000 targets.

Engineers set up Curiosity to start using its autonomous navigation system at the end of August. By October the rover had completed its first two-day autonomous drive across the Martian landscape, bringing it to just 260 feet from “Cooperstown” on Mars.

RedOrbit performed an interview with Jeng Yen during this Curiosity phase, asking the engineer what it was like to drive a rover on the Red Planet.

“It feels great to brag about driving the most expensive car on the frontier millions of miles away,” Yen told redOrbit in an interview. “Especially when I talked the rover driver experience with kids, they often asked me how I did the driving of the rover so far away, I often answered with ‘not much different with playing a video game.’ They all think that I have the greatest job in the world and that science is very cool!”

In September, scientists said Curiosity actually discovered water on Mars during its first soil scoop. The team wrote in the journal Science that the rover’s first scoop contained fine materials that were several percent water by weight. This discovery is a breakthrough for future missions because now we know human explorers of Mars will be able to use methods to obtain water from the Martian surface to survive on the Red Planet.

The rover gave a bit of a scare to everyone in November when a couple of malfunctions caused Curiosity to halt its operations on Mars. At the beginning of the month, Curiosity put itself in safe mode after an unexpected software reboot occurred during a communication pass with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The Curiosity team determined the root cause of the problem, only for another one to occur just a few weeks later when the rover experienced a voltage change.

NASA suspended its prized rover’s operations after learning that Curiosity was exposed to a “soft” short, which is a leak through a material that is partially conductive of electricity. The rover is designed to work throughout a range of voltages, but any problem at all with the rover is handled with precaution because it is a lot harder to fix the world’s most expensive wheeled vehicle from millions of miles away.

A few weeks after NASA decided to resume Curiosity operations, the rover fired off its 100,000th laser shot on Mars. One of a series of 300 shots was fired at a distance of 13 feet from the rover to investigate 10 locations on a rock called “Ithaca.”

Each of Curiosity’s laser shots deliver more than a million watts of power for about five one-billionths of a second. This instrument has been used to help assess the composition of rocks on Mars.

A few days after Curiosity hit its laser milestone, scientists wrote in Science Express that they used data from the rover to analyze the age of rock samples. This was the first-ever geological analysis of a rock sample performed on another planet. The geochemical analysis performed is similar to what scientists do on Earth, involving a technique known as potassium-argon dating. The research team used Curiosity’s SAM instrument to determine that a rock in Yellowknife Bay was between 3.8 and 4.5 billion years old.

One of Curiosity’s best findings out of a full year of discoveries was announced in December at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco. NASA scientists said Curiosity data revealed that a crater on Mars is actually an ancient lake bed that could have contained the proper conditions to support life.

The ancient lake bed, roughly the size of New York’s Finger Lakes, had the right ingredients for life to exist. The lake contained chemicals and minerals that are needed to support life, and it was around for as long as tens of thousands of years, which is long enough for life to have incubated.

“What we have found is that Gale Crater was able to sustain a lake on its surface at least once in its ancient past that may have been favorable for microbial life, billions of years ago. This is a huge positive step for the exploration of Mars,” stated Professor Sanjeev Gupta, a member of the Curiosity team from the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College London and a co-author on the paper published in the journal Science.

Gupta said that for the next phase of the mission Curiosity will be exploring more rocky outcrops on the crater’s surface, which could hold the key to whether life did exist on Mars.

2013 has been a huge year for Martian exploration, and Curiosity has been behind the majority of the discoveries. For scientists, the $2.5 billion spent to develop Curiosity has already paid for itself ten-fold in knowledge that couldn’t have been obtained without it. For those skeptics who still need the rover to continue earning its keep, 2014 has the potential to be an even bigger year of Martian discoveries than this past year.


Source: Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online