“Today marks the third Earth-year since NASA’s Curiosity rover made its nail-biting descent through Mars’s thin atmosphere, successfully landing on the dusty surface of the red planet.
Meanwhile, plans are under way for the next rover mission in 2020. The updated rover, equipped with a nimble helicopter to help navigate its bulky companion through the rocky terrain, will increase the distance the rover can drive in a day. The helicopter section is about the size of a tissue box, and will fly ahead of the rover to scout out the best routes and most interesting sites for exploration.
Curiosity has spent the last three years exploring Gale Crater—a low-lying region that scientists chose as the most likely spot to have held past life, if it existed. Since its triumphant arrival in the crater, the car-size “laboratory on wheels” has traversed nearly 11 kilometers (6.8 miles)—taking pictures, collecting samples, and analyzing rocks, says Ashwin Vasavada, deputy project scientist for the rover mission.” said nationalgeographic.com
“Early in the mission, the rover found evidence of an ancient freshwater lake in sediments of Yellowknife Bay, the lowest point of the crater. And although the rover hasn’t confirmed whether the planet once held extraterrestrial life, the discoveries of past water as well as carbon-containing compounds and nutrients hint at the possibility.
The rover has now completed its yearlong trek to the base of Mount Sharp, a mountain of layered rocks towering over three miles high (five kilometers) in the middle of the Gale Crater.
These layers likely “captured a long record of time, just like the layers in the Grand Canyon,” says Vasavada. By examining the layers one at a time, scientists hope to unravel the history of life on the now frozen desert.
In fact, the rover has given scientists such a tremendous amount of information about the planet that many small discoveries “never make the list,” says Vasavada. For instance, researchers are tracking changes in methane in the Martian atmosphere, which fluctuate by up to a factor of ten for unknown reasons. The rover also monitors weather and the peculiar flow of winds inside the large basin of the Gale Crater.” said nationalgeographic.com
Even after three years, the rover is healthy and has a lot of life in it. Speaking from the rover’s perspective, “we don’t feel like we are getting old yet,” says Vasavada. “We still feel like we have a lot ahead of us.”
Here are the images taken by the Curiosity Rover…
This selfie of Curiosity was stitched together from 55 pictures at Rocknest dune—the site where the rover sampled Martian soil for the first time.
Scientists believe that the layers of rock on the lower flanks of Mount Sharp will help them untangle Mars’ geologic history. Scientists will examine the mountain layer by layer, as if leafing through the pages of a book.
The first drill hole in Mount Sharp was less than an inch wide (1.6 centimeters) but held a wealth of information. The sample contained hematite, an iron-oxide mineral suggesting Mars may have once had chemistry that could support microbes.
This piece of rock, dubbed Tintina, was crushed under one of Curiosity’s wheels to reveal a surprisingly white interior. The minerals of the rock contain water, further suggesting the planet was once watery.
The rover’s track marks along the top of this image include a pattern of lines that is Morse code for “JPL,” or NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. Interspersed with the zigzag tracks, this pattern was a reference to help the rover navigate.
Curiosity collected its first scoop of Martian soil at the Rocknest dunes, and also found this bit of debris, possibly dropped during the rover’s landing. When Curiosity heated the soil in its onboard lab, a bit of water vapor escaped.
Curiosity got its second bite of Mount Sharp’s soil at the Mojave site, surrounded by the Pahrump Hills. Around this time, scientists announced the rover had detected methane in Mars’s atmosphere and organic molecules in rocks.
On the 535th Martian day, Curiosity traversed the Dingo Gap—a three-foot-tall (one-meter) dune. Scientists aim Curiosity toward features like the dune sands to prevent rapid wearing of the treads on the surprisingly sharp Martian rocks.
This low-resolution picture of Curiosity’s shadow was one of the first it snapped after landing on the dusty planet.
The rover caught this stunning view of the sun setting over the rim of Gale crater on April 15, 2015. Unlike our red-hued sunsets, Martian views are tinted blue thanks to fine particles that allow more blue light into the atmosphere.
The Curiosity rover appears as a tiny blue dot at the lower right of this image. Behind it trails a path of winding tracks back to its landing site, where a scar remains from the landing jets’ blast.
Scientists believe that the even layers of this Martian rock were first deposited near the edge of an ancient lake, close to where water flowed into the basin. These formations are one of the many features that signal the planet’s watery past.
Two NASA engineers pose with three generations of Mars rovers developed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The Curiosity Rover was “conceived as a laboratory on wheels,” says Vasavada.
Curiosity charges toward Mount Sharp, which towers at a startling 3.4 miles high (5.5 kilometers)—taller than Mount Whitney in California. Scientists hope to study the mountain’s rocky layers to unfold the history of life on Mars.
The rover is packed with sensors and instruments to record the Martian landscape. The pink circle in the center of this camera is one of the rover’s many “eyes.”