Tuesday, August 6, 2013

365 Days On: What Have We Learned From Curiosity's First Year on Mars?

One year ago today, everybody's favourite planetary rover Curiosity landed in the foothills of Gale Crater on the surface of Mars. Now, 365 days on, we ask what has Curiosity learned about the Red Planet in the last 12 months, and where does it go from here? 

One of the stunning panoramas taken by Curiosity on Mars
credit: NASA
This time last year, we were all on the edge of our seats, waiting to see if the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity had survived the "Seven Minutes of Terror" through the Martian atmosphere, landing safely on the surface of red planet. When touchdown was confirmed, we were treated to jubilant scenes like this that came from Mission Control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. Curiosity was now on Mars and it was ready to go to work!

It wasn't long before the rover started sending amazing photos like the one above back to Earth, causing further cause for celebration for all those working back in JPL. But Curiosity wasn't sent on a 355 million mile journey just to take pictures- it was sent to explore what Mount Sharp; located in an area of special interest to mission investigators; had to offer in terms of Mars' ancient past, and to see if life could have ever existed. We soon got our answer.

The video below shows the journey Curiosity has taken in the past 12 months on the surface of Mars, all in a two minute video. Enjoy!

The rover soon started moving, with Curiosity testing out its equipment and systems before getting down to work. All the wheels, cameras and other scientific instruments used for analysis were working just fine, and now, twelve months into the mission, just by investigating a series of surface rocks, pebbles and soil from the Martian landscape, Curiosity has already discovered that there was flowing water on ancient Mars. Within two months the team found an ancient riverbed with evidence of flowing water, and not just any old kind of water- we're talking about water that you probably would have been able to drink had you been on Mars back then. And the cool thing about this is that we haven't even gotten to Mount Sharp yet, and already, the primary mission objectives have been completed.

Its a fact!

So far, Curiosity has taken over 37,000 images, carried out over 75,000 shots with its ChemCam laser, and has driven nearly 2 kilometers on the surface of Mars.

What have we learned?

A Martian Self-portrait
Since landing on Mars one year ago, we have learned that liquid water did exist on the surface of the Red Planet, and that had we been around to see it, we would have been able to drink it! How cool is that?! Now that we've discovered signs of ancient water, that means that there's a good chance that there could have been ancient life on Mars too right? Well, we'll just have to wait and see! 

Recently I asked MSL Flight Director Bobak Ferdowsi  what he thought was Curiosity's greatest discovery to date. He replied:

"Our greatest achievement was almost certainly our discovery that ancient Mars was habitable for some life forms"

What's Next for Curiosity?

Well, now that it's been proven that water did exist on Mars, what's left for Curiosity to discover?

Well, let's remember one of the main reasons why mission planners sent MSL to Mount Sharp in Gale Crater instead of any other region of Mars. Satellite imagery from probes and satellites orbiting the Red Planet saw signs of ancient streambeds radiating outwards from the bottom of Mount Sharp, flowing into Gale Crater, and indicating that there might have been some form of water flow in the dead planets' past. The next question scientists asked was "Where was this liquid coming from? Was it coming from Mount Sharp? What lays beneath its rocky slopes? Could it have been liquid water"?

Now Curiosity will head for the hills and investigate the composition of Sharp. The trek to Mount Sharp has begun! Who knows what discoveries lay ahead? All we know is that Curiosity has already done so much in it's first year on Mars, and it's about to do a whole lot more!