Curiosity celebrates ten years on Mars

Selfie taken by Curiosity on May 12, 2019, on its 2,405th day on Mars. / NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Science | Space

NASA's rover has discovered the building blocks of life on the planet and also evidence that there was abundant water in the past

His descent to Mars was incredible. The most complex planned by NASA until then. After seven minutes of terror in which, during entry into the atmosphere, communications are suspended, a parachute 18 meters in diameter stopped his fall. When it was freed from this, a flying crane with retropropellers took the core, until gently lowering it into the Gale crater. "Landing confirmed," said engineer Allen Chen, deputy director of the maneuver. All six of his wheels had touched the ground. It was 7:32 a.m. on August 6, 2012.

Ten years later, Curiosity is still there, on Mars, fully empowered. The veteran mobile laboratory, the size of an SUV, has ten instruments, including a Spanish environmental station. Its objectives upon arrival on the planet were to check if it had ever had enough water and other ingredients necessary for the development of life. He has more than fulfilled them.

Curiosity has discovered that liquid water and the building blocks for life existed in Gale for at least tens of millions of years, and that it was home to a lake that grew and shrank in size over time. “We are seeing evidence of drastic changes in the ancient Martian climate. The question now is whether the habitable conditions Curiosity has found so far survived these changes. Did they disappear, never to return, or did they come and go over millions of years?” asks Ashwin Vasavada, project scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

98 weeks initial shelf life

Heir to Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity, the rover has so far traveled 28.2 kilometers and analyzed 41 rocks and Martian soil samples. In addition, it has measured the ultraviolet radiation to which the first humans to set foot on the planet will be exposed, a world that lacks the shield provided by a magnetic field and a dense atmosphere. And it has also left questions in the air. It has detected near-surface fluctuations in methane, a gas that on Earth varies with biological activity. Is that the case for Mars? Curiosity is not equipped to determine whether the origin of this fluctuating methane is biological or geological.

Its initial useful life was one Martian year –98 weeks–, but on April 25 the mission was extended by three more years. Behind the extraordinary performance of NASA's robot, powered by nuclear energy, in addition to its design, there are hundreds of engineers who have sent more than 4 million commands to the 'rover', have solved problems with the drill several times, have examined in detail the environment to minimize damage to the wheels and have developed a traction control algorithm for this. “As soon as you land on Mars, everything you do is based on the fact that there is no one to repair it for 100 million miles,” said Andy Mishkin, acting director of the Curiosity project at JPL.

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