curiosity self portrait at windjana
June 24, 2014

Mars Curiosity Rover Marks First Martian Year Of Research

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Curiosity is wrapping up its first Martian year on the surface of the Red Planet today, marking a successful 687 Earth days having already accomplished its primary goal by determining that the world was once home to conditions capable of supporting living microbes.

The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover touched down in August 2012, a journey that lasted over 350 million miles and culminated in a soft landing in the northern portion of Gale Crater. One of its first major discoveries came shortly thereafter, when it determined that a part of the crater known as Yellowknife Bay could have once been home to tiny life forms.

According to NASA, Curiosity made that discovery following an analysis of two mudstone slabs sampled using the rover’s drill – an analysis which “revealed the site was once a lakebed with mild water, the essential elemental ingredients for life, and a type of chemical energy source used by some microbes on Earth. If Mars had living organisms, this would have been a good home for them.”

[ Watch the Video: Curiosity Rover Report (6/24/2014): Curiosity Completes Its First Martian Year ]

The MSL rover was also able to complete several other tasks during its first Martian year. It was able to evaluate the radiation levels that astronauts would experience both during the journey to the world and on its surface, which will help the US space agency develop adequate protection for proposed manned missions to the Red Planet.

Curiosity also completed measurements of heavy-versus-light elements in the planet’s atmosphere, allowing scientists to come to the conclusion that much of the early Martian atmosphere disappeared as a result of processes favoring the loss of lighter atoms, such as those from the upper parts of the atmosphere. Additional measurements determined that the atmosphere holds little if any of the gas methane, which can be produced biologically.

It also completed the first age-analysis of a rock on Mars, determining exactly how long a rock had been exposed to harmful levels of radiation. That information can help researchers better understand when there was liquid water on the planet, and for assessing how quickly organic compounds in rocks and soils will degrade, the agency noted.

In July 2013, Curiosity officially surpassed the one kilometer mark in distance traveled since it arrived on the surface of the plane. It has now traveled approximately 1.5 kilometers in 23 driving days thus far. In December 2013, the rover fired off the 100,000 shot from the laser used to check chemical elements in rocks and soil.

Last month, the rover stopped at a sandstone site known as Windjana, where it stopped to drill and collect rock powder samples that it is currently carrying for future follow-up studies. Members of NASA’s Curiosity team said that detailed chemical and mineral analysis of the samples could reveal previously undiscovered composition.

“Windjana has more magnetite than previous samples we've analyzed,” said David Blake, principal investigator for Curiosity's Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument at the NASA Ames Research Center. “A key question is whether this magnetite is a component of the original basalt or resulted from later processes, such as would happen in water-soaked basaltic sediments. The answer is important to our understanding of habitability and the nature of the early-Mars environment.”

“Preliminary indications are that the rock contains a more diverse mix of clay minerals than was found in the mission's only previously drilled rocks, the mudstone targets at Yellowknife Bay,” the US space agency added. “Windjana also contains an unexpectedly high amount of the mineral orthoclase, This is a potassium-rich feldspar that is one of the most abundant minerals in Earth's crust that had never before been definitively detected on Mars.”

Based on those findings, the researchers believe that some of the rocks on the Gale Crater rim (which include the Windjana sandstones) could have experienced multiple instances of melting and other complex geological processing. NASA scientists report that it is too early to say for certain, but they expect that when the results are combined with other information collected by Curiosity, it could reveal a long history of water-rock interaction.

“Since wheel damage prompted a slow-down in driving late in 2013, the mission team has adjusted routes and driving methods to reduce the rate of damage,” the agency explained. “For example, the mission team revised the planned route to future destinations on the lower slope of an area called Mount Sharp, where scientists expect geological layering will yield answers about ancient environments.”

“Before Curiosity landed, scientists anticipated that the rover would need to reach Mount Sharp to meet the goal of determining whether the ancient environment was favorable for life,” it added. “They found an answer much closer to the landing site… At Mount Sharp, the mission team will seek evidence not only of habitability, but also of how environments evolved and what conditions favored preservation of clues to whether life existed there.”

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