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Curiosity on Mars: An Earth Year of Amazing Discoveries

Curiosity on Mars: An Earth Year of Amazing Discoveries

It’s been a year since we waited the seven minutes of terror for the landing of the most sophisticated Mars rover we’ve ever engineered. In the 365 Earth days since that historic landing, the Mars Science Laboratory – known as Curiosity – has performed some amazing science and inspired countless people.

The Landing

Credit: NASA

Curiosity is big. At 2,000 pounds, even landing on the planet in one piece was a marvel of modern engineering. For comparison, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers weigh in at 410 pounds each. Because Curiosity is so big, it couldn’t just bounce along the ground, ensconced in airbags, which is how Spirit and Opportunity landed. Instead, NASA used the sky crane to lower the rover to the Martian surface. This was risky. Because conditions on Earth are so different from those on Mars, it was impossible to test. As we all know, it ended spectacularly.

However, we didn’t just devise a new method of landing a gigantic, nuclear powered vehicle on Mars just to prove we could. Curiosity had major exploring to do!

Running Water

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS and PSI

Near its landing site, Curiosity discovered something so familiar, yet incredibly exciting: rounded pebbles, ranging in size from a grain of sand to a golf ball. This simple discovery indicated that, sometime in Mars’ ancient past, the planet played host to flowing streams. After studying the pebbles, NASA scientists determined that that location was probably once home to a shallow stream that ran about three feet second.

Formerly Thick Atmosphere

Credit: Wikipedia

Curiosity has also been analyzing the Martian atmosphere over the past year and has helped us figure out that, while the atmosphere may once have been thick like Earth’s, it hasn’t been in about 4 billion years. You see, there are certain isotopes (basically, atoms with some extra neutrons in the nucleus) that scientists can look for when analyzing the atmosphere. In this case, Curiosity detected higher concentrations of those telltale isotopes, which is evidence that most of the atmospheric gases have escaped. We don’t really know why the atmosphere escaped from Mars and not from Earth, but it could have something to do with a planet’s magnetic field. A magnetic field protects a planet from solar wind particles which can strip away an atmosphere. Earth has a magnetic field. Mars does not.

To Methane, or Not to Methane

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Sometimes it’s not what you find on your exploratory expedition. It’s what you don’t find. In measurements from Earth we’ve found hotspots of methane on Mars. On our little blue planet, the majority of methane comes from biological activity like cow farts, but it can also be created from interactions between rocks and water. If Curiosity had found methane, it could have indicated microbial life or geologic activity, which would overturn current thinking.

Curiosity has sniffed the atmosphere and has found no definitive evidence of methane. That, however, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It’s possible that the gas is only produced during certain seasons and disappears quickly. It’s possible that Curiosity just missed it this time around. Only time will tell.

Excitement for Science

A renewed excitement for space exploration and science in general is probably my favorite side effect of the Curiosity mission. People got into it! Over three million people watched the Curiosity landing via the Internet, and almost two million watched on television. A thousand people gathered in Time Square to watch it live, as well. As of this writing, the Curiosity rover Twitter account has 1,373,719 followers. It could just be the circles I run in, but there’s a static in the air. People seem to care about planetary exploration in a way they didn’t before Curiosity. Mars is now in the popular conscience. There was talk of a reality show, for crying out loud!

Even if we don’t find any little green men, if this is the legacy of Curiosity, I’ll take it.

Happy birthday, Curiosity!

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Photo Credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech, MSSS - Panorama by Andrew Bodrov

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39 comments

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6:28AM PST on Dec 30, 2013

interesting

12:33PM PDT on Oct 13, 2013

And very soon thanks to the plague called humans the only sign of life in this solar system will be a robot trundling around on the lifeless wasteland of Mars.

9:35PM PDT on Aug 16, 2013

Waste of money....

12:20AM PDT on Aug 8, 2013

Thanks for this interesting article. Outer space is certainly breathtaking and discovering its mysteries will always spark our dreams and fantasies. It shouldn't be at the expense of humans' basic needs though.
Birgit W. You show a sharp mind. KUDOS!

5:38PM PDT on Aug 7, 2013

BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR [ ALIEN LIFE ], YOU MIGHT JUST GET IT.... - AND IF THEY DID FIND LIFE ON MARS, I WONDER HOW THEY WOULD REACT...

5:27PM PDT on Aug 7, 2013

Anne B - Your point is taken about using the funds. But let me remind you that the entire budget for NASA is approximately a half-day in the Pentagon's budget. I prefer it to be far more evenly split (and I support the military!)

4:42PM PDT on Aug 7, 2013

We should also celebrate on the Martian year marks, not just the Earth year marks...

3:20PM PDT on Aug 7, 2013

This is the human race at it's best, 'boldly going where no man has gone before'. This is also basic research at it's best, because a lot of the general public finds it exciting, a rare, though unnecessary benefit. We always end up learning so much from these space programs that later has practical benefits here on Earth, that these programs more than pay for themselves, and at a time when there is so little to be proud of here at home, at least us disgruntled Americans can say to ourselves 'well, at least we're exploring Mars'. Happy birthday, Curiosity!

2:19PM PDT on Aug 7, 2013

I love this! Mars has always fascinated me as have the other planets. I am old enough to remember the beginnings of the voyages into space, including sputnik, and I am amazed at what people are able to do if they choose. With that said, Curiosity is able to operate without a fossil fuel. If we put our minds to it we could rid ourselves of our dependence on fossil fuels. If we don't we and the rest of planet earth will pay the price.

As beautiful as Mars is -- take a good, long look at Mars -- this is how desolate and barren planet earth will look like when we humans have finished heating up and poisoning this planet.

12:04PM PDT on Aug 7, 2013

I was a teenager when Apollo touched down on the moon with humans aboard-and was so excited by all the possibilities of space exploration! In 2013 as a senior citizen I still see great value in Mars exploration, but question our priorities when money is tight and life on earth so in peril...I vote for earth based research at this point to explore terran problems/challenges never dreamed of in decades past...

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That would be nice if it works out. However, researchers should keep in mind John W. Campbell's observation…

What a brilliant use of 3D printing. Congratulations.

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