NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) probe launched from its Cape Canaveral platform on Nov. 26, 2011, bound for the red planet. The spacecraft's onboard rover, Curiosity, entered the Martian atmosphere on Aug. 5, 2012, (EDT) and landed in an ancient equatorial depression known as Gale Crater. From there, the rover traveled out to explore the alien landscape, collect samples, and take pictures of the extraterrestrial scenery.
Over the course of its first year on Mars, the rover has covered a considerable amount of ground and enabled a greater understanding of the Martian surface. Curiosity's engineering achievements—to date—include the following three milestones:
- "Has Mars ever been capable of supporting life?" Curiosity definitively answered that question when it examined an area known as Yellowknife Bay in 2012 and 2013. The rover gathered data over the course of approximately six months, during which it also sent over 70,000 photographs to NASA researchers on Earth. Substrate analyses revealed clay deposits, indicating that water had previously been present at the site in the form of an ancient—and pH-neutral—lake.
- Initially, members of the NASA team controlled Curiosity remotely. However, on Aug. 27, 2013, the rover began using autonomous navigation for the very first time. This precisely engineered feature—also known as autonav—allows Curiosity to calculate a safe path over the Martian surface using data extracted from images taken during a drive.
- On Aug. 17, 2013, Curiosity took several strikingly clear photographs of the Phobos solar eclipse. The rover's advanced engineering includes a mast camera known as the MastCam system, which has a 1600 x 1200 pixel imaging capacity, 720p video capability, and a ten-frame-per-second continuous shooting mode. When the eclipse occurred, Phobos's irregular outline became a clearly visible silhouette against the sun: Curiosity's solar eclipse pictures were the sharpest ever taken from the Martian surface.
Many innovative concepts have already emerged from the data gathered by Curiosity. Professor Steven Benner, for example, recently proposed a new theory about the evolution of life on Earth. According to Benner's hypothesis, the conditions at Yellowknife Bay may have led to RNA formation via a prebiotic chemical process. If true, life potentially started as RNA on Mars and hitched an interplanetary ride to Earth aboard a Martian meteorite before evolving into DNA.
Other data, including a series of solar radiation measurements taken on the journey from Earth to Mars, will likely prove beneficial to engineers involved in the proposed Mars One mission. If successful, the privately funded mission—which is currently planned for 2023—will take four people on a one-way expedition to the planet. Engineers will need to take solar radiation levels into consideration as they design and build a spaceship capable of making the journey.
The latest rover expedition has shed new light—literally and figuratively—on the surface of Mars. As well as identifying ancient water sources, Curiosity has captured crisp imagery and navigated the terrain all by itself. The innumerable engineering marvels aboard the rover have enabled its continued exploration and may one day help human beings create a manned spaceship suitable for interplanetary travel—and a personal trip to Mars.
(Photo courtesy of Victor Habbick / Freedigitalphotos.net)