NASA’s Curiosity rover celebrates its 10th – but hardly the last – anniversary on Mars

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover is being tested on Earth in 2011. The rover will celebrate its 10th anniversary of landing on Mars on August 5, 2022 (NASA)

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is being tested on Earth in 2011. The rover will celebrate its 10th anniversary of landing on Mars on August 5, 2022 (NASA)

On Friday, NASA’s Curiosity rover will celebrate its 10th anniversaryº birthday on Mars, and counting. The small car-sized rover made a soft landing at the bottom of Gale Crater on the night of August 5, with a mission to find evidence of past habitability on the Red Planet.

A decade later, NASA can call Curiosity’s mission a resounding success. He established the long-term presence of liquid water on the surface of Mars in the planet’s ancient past, a prerequisite for the existence of life. It also established with certainty the presence of organic chemicals that are the building blocks of potential life.

Additionally, Curiosity’s mission is still ongoing, with the rover still climbing a mountain of sedimentary rock in what was once an ancient lake bed on Mars.

“About the state of the rover, overall, we’re just excited,” Ashwin Vasavada, project scientist for the Curiosity mission, told The Independent. “The rover is still able to do all the science that matters to the mission, even 10 years later.”

The curiosity and science it made possible serves as an important bridge in NASA’s Mars science program, connecting earlier missions such as Spirit and Opportunity Rovers — and even the 1970s Viking landers — with the Perseverance rover and helicopter. Ingenuity, who are also exploring Red Planet. Perseverance may represent the forefront, drilling into Martian soil samples that will be returned to Earth for study in the 2030s, but Curiosity still has a lot to teach scientists, according to Dr. Vasavada.

“There’s still more to come,” he said, “that’s the bottom line.”

martian curiosity

Curiosity and Dr Vasavada really take their inspiration from the same place – Mars in the 1970s.

“The pictures that really got me when I was 10 years old was the Viking probe taking pictures of this endless desert landscape going far away,” he said.

The surface of Mars imaged by the Viking 1 spacecraft. (NASA)

The surface of Mars imaged by the Viking 1 spacecraft. (NASA)

Viking 1 landed on Mars on July 20, 1976 and, in addition to taking stunning photos of the surface, conducted the first astrobiology experiments on the surface of the Red Planet in hopes of finding evidence of alien life. Mars, after all, has combined two very attractive features for scientists looking for signs of life, according to Dr. Vasavada: it carried a decently high chance of having hosted life and was close enough to study.

“There may be places that have a better chance of life, you know, maybe now like the oceans in Europe, but they’re too far away to be efficiently explored,” he said. “Mars has always had this attraction and the way I like to describe it is as if Viking was trying to hit a home run.”

A failed attempt, according to most scientists. While some scientists still maintain that the Viking 1 and 2 probes found evidence of life on Mars, scientific consensus remains that the Viking results were inconclusive.

“I think if you asked planetary scientists in 1977, they would just say that we are excited because there is liquid water. [on Mars], but we don’t really know much more than that,'” said Dr. Vasavada. “After that, NASA really had to regroup for a couple of decades.”

It wasn’t until the 1990s, when the space agency made the search for life in the universe a major focus, that research on Mars resumed.

“And they established a strategy where they would not go home run anymore,” said Dr. Vasavada. NASA would send orbiters, like the Mars Global Surveyor launched in 1996, to Mars to study the surface and find the best places to land future missions. Then they would send rovers to confirm evidence that Mars once harbored large amounts of liquid water.

“If liquid water never existed, there is no chance that life could exist,” Vasavada said. “That and where [the rovers] Spirit and Opportunity fit together. They were actually sent there to look for signs of liquid water.”

“The next part of NASA’s strategy was then to broaden the search beyond water for habitability, and that’s the main goal of Curiosity,” said Vasavada. Curiosity would not just look for signs of liquid water, but of persistent liquid water, lakes and rivers flowing long enough for life to have a chance. And it would need to look for the chemical building blocks of life.

“That’s why the rover is kind of big,” Vasavada said. “It has a number of different instruments that look at all these different aspects of what would make a planet habitable. And so we needed to be able to drill through rock samples, because we’re looking into the past.”

Of course, the past you look at depends on where you drill, “So we sent it to Gale Crater, which is a 100-mile-wide crater that has a big pile of sediment, sedimentary rocks in it,” Vasavada said. “And that was super exciting, because sedimentary rocks record a history of time: sediments are deposited progressively over millions of years.”

The hope was that Curiosity could climb a five-kilometer pile of sedimentary rock that had accumulated in what NASA believed was an ancient crater lake, drill through the mud rocks, and find evidence of ancient water and organic chemistry.

“So that’s where we were on August 4, 2012. The day before we landed,” Vasavada said. “We had a great rover and we had a landing site that offered the best chance we could think of anywhere on the planet to find a habitable environment, but there were definitely no guarantees.”

Proof of habitability

In the years since its landing 10 years ago, Curiosity has climbed 600 meters to the sedimentary rock mound in Gale Crater, according to Dr. Vasavada.

“What we found is that almost all of these 600 vertical meters are made up of layers of rock that have abundant evidence of interaction with liquid water,” he said. “They are mud that has formed at the bottom.”

It takes time to accumulate 600 meters of muddy sediment, and so these measurements lead to one of the key findings of the Curiosity mission, according to Dr. Vasavada: Liquid water has been present in Gale Crater on Mars for a long time.

“It’s like hundreds of thousands of years, but probably millions or tens of millions of years,” he said.

“Linked with this discovery is the discovery of all the chemical requirements for life,” added Dr. Vasavada. “We were able to drill through these mudstones of the lake bed, and within these mudstones, we were able to find these organic molecules.”

So, three or four billion years ago, in Gale Crater, favorable conditions existed for the emergence of life on Mars.

“And what’s fascinating is that much of the history that Curiosity explored predates time on Earth,” said Vasavada. “Earth became the habitable planet it is today largely after the time period we are exploring in Gale Crater on Mars.”

Four billion years ago, alien scientists passing through our solar system would have chosen Mars as the most likely place to find life, not Earth.

signs of life

But was Mars the host of life all those billions of years ago? This is not a question Curiosity was designed to answer, but it is one that can be answered through Perseverance. Curiosity’s successor landed on a dry riverbed on Mars on February 18, 2021, and has so far spent nearly 18 months on the Red Planet drilling rock and soil samples and storing them for later retrieval as part of the Return Mission. NASA samples. When the samples are returned to Earth in the 2030s, scientists will be able to bring in full labs to see if these samples contain signs of Martian life, existing or ancient.

It’s a quest that takes Curiosity’s baton, and a quest that would never have happened with Curiosity’s successes.

“If we found Gale Crater it was a barren wasteland,” Vasavada said, “if we found a big pile of dust and we were completely wrong in our assumptions about it before landing; It would have been harder for NASA to go ahead with a mission like Perseverance and put all that focus on looking for signs of life.”

But as he mentioned, Curiosity isn’t over yet.

The rover will celebrate its 10th anniversaryº anniversary by continuing its slow climb to the sedimentary mound of rock in Gale Crater, where its most recent samples are starting to suggest major changes in ancient Mars. Samples that once showed abundant clayey minerals now show sulfate-rich rocks, according to Dr. Vasavada.

“We don’t know what that means, but one of our main hypotheses is that these sulfate minerals were enriched by something like what happens when lakes and water dry up and leave salty minerals behind,” he said. “It could be a sign of the planet as a whole doing this.”

So, as Curiosity progresses, it may not only prove to have found evidence of a past period of habitability, but also provide clues as to when and how that period came to an end.

Assuming the tough rover can continue transporting. Dr. Vasavada thinks the odds are good.

“We had some very significant challenges. We had to redesign how we drilled twice in the mission now due to some anomalies that occurred and loss of some mechanical parts of the rover,” he said. “We had a lot of problems in 10 years, like the old machines, but we always managed to recover.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.