Space

NASA Curiosity cruising one year after Mars landing

curiosity

NASA's Curiosity rover takes "selfies" as it probes the Martian surface. (NASA photo)

NASA's $2.5 billion Curiosity rover captured the world's attention in August 2012 when it touched down on Mars using an unprecedented sky crane landing technique described by engineers as "seven minutes of terror."

One year later, the rover is scaling a Martian mountain and telling us Earthlings all about it.

Imbued with personality and humor – check out the rover's Twitter account – Curiosity is unlike any NASA creation before it, and with deserved pomp and circumstance celebrated its one-year anniversary atop the Martian surface on Aug. 5 by singing "Happy Birthday" to itself.

Of course, it wasn't enough to play a recorded rendition – Curiosity did its own version by vibrating its sample analysis unit at varying frequencies.

Yet Curiosity, which takes glamorous "selfies" with its 12 engineering cameras, is about substance over style. It has delivered scientists more than 180 gigabits of data and 70,000 Martian images and fired more than 75,000 laser shots to investigate the composition of Martian targets.

Along the way, Curiosity has driven more than one mile, adeptly navigating Mars' iron-rich and rocky surface with only a few hiccups along the way, including a brief computer glitch that halted it in March.

Yet Curiosity has already fulfilled its main mission objective: To determine whether Mars was once hospitable for life.

Spoiler alert: It was, and Curiosity analyzed rock samples in Mars' Yellowknife Bay to prove it.

"Successes of our Curiosity -- that dramatic touchdown a year ago and the science findings since then -- advance us toward further exploration, including sending humans to an asteroid and Mars," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement. "Wheel tracks now will lead to boot prints later."

The rover is measuring radiation and weather on Mars' surface – data that will be used in plotting human missions to Mars in the coming decades.

Curiosity has been on the move over the past month, traveling about 750 yards  toward Mount Sharp. Curiosity's next goal is investigating the lower levels of the three-mile high mountain. Mars may have once been hospitable billions of years ago, but its environment is anything but friendly to man or machine now. Yet NASA engineers believe Curiosity still has at least one more year of top-notch research to come before any trouble might set in.

"We now know Mars offered favorable conditions for microbial life billions of years ago," said the mission's project scientist, John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "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."

About the Author

Frank Konkel is a former staff writer for FCW.

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