10 years ago, the Curiosity rover reached Mars and revolutionized the search for extraterrestrial life

ten years ago today, NASA’s Curiosity rover landed on Mars to identify clues that could help answer the burning question: “Is there life beyond Earth?” So far, this mission has been a resounding success, and Curiosity still roams the planet’s surface today, providing data to scientists, allowing them to piece together the history of Mars and unravel the mystery of life on the planet. .

Curiosity launched on November 26, 2011 from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It landed on Mars 10 years ago, on August 5, 2012. Plans for Curiosity began long before its launch and involved hundreds of scientists from around the world.

Once Curiosity entered the Martian atmosphere, it was designed to move similarly to NASA’s space shuttle astronauts toward the landing site. Several minutes before landing on the surface, Curiosity deployed a parachute to slow down. An advanced system containing mounted retrorockets slowed the spacecraft further, before Curiosity lowered the lander on a tether and brought the rover upright on its wheels.

Curiosity team members look at the first images to arrive after the rover’s successful landing.Bill Ingalls/NASA/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Curiosity landed at Bradbury Landing, at the foot of a giant mountain, Aeolis Mons, which means Sharp Crater, with an elevation of 18,000 feet, making it taller than any mountain in the contiguous United States. Aeolis Mons resides within Gale Crater, a 96-mile-wide crater that dates back to the early formation of Mars, 3.8-3.5 billion years ago, as the product of a comet or meteorite striking the planet’s surface.

Emily Lakdwalla, planetary geologist and author of TThe Design and Engineering of Curiosity: How the Mars Rover Does Its Job and (retired) science explainer for the Planetary Society who is also working on a second book, Curiosity: Science MissionHe says Reverse that ever since the Viking orbiter identified geological formations on Mars that were likely formed by water, exploration on Mars “has been united under the mantra, ‘follow the water.'”

Water is understood to be a key ingredient for life on Earth. She further explains that heavy Martian craters, like those we see on the Moon, may contradict the long-term presence of water. In a nutshell, many long-standing craters with no signs of erosion could mean the water disappeared a long, long time ago, or didn’t exist for a long time.

“If you’re interested in the question of life on Mars, then you need to find out if water was ever really stable for a long time,” Lakdawalla said. “If it was, in what kind of environments did it exist? So the idea of ​​following water and discovering the conditions under which liquid water existed on the surface of Mars in the past was a common theme for Mars exploration. That’s what drove much of the mission science that’s happened in the last 25 years or so.”

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Gale Crater was chosen after much debate due to a variety of promising indicators that there would be a water record there.

Why was Curiosity so innovative?

What initially set Curiosity apart from other Mars missions, Lakdawalla explains, was the desire to make a precision landing. All previous missions, such as Pathfinder, Vikings, Opportunity, and Spirit, had very large designated landing areas.

“So the next idea was set by NASA headquarters saying that to really get to interesting places that we found from orbit that might answer these questions about water, we need to have a more precise landing capability,” she says.

In addition to advanced landing capabilities, Curiosity is a powerhouse of a rover. Powered by a radioisotope system, Curiosity has already exceeded its projected mission time of 23 months, or one Martian year, but is still going strong and providing new data today.

“It was built with much more redundancy [than other rovers] where you have two main computer brains, two motor controllers, two pumps for your cooling fluid, you have two of the most important things, but you only have one of each scientific instrument,” recalls Lakdawalla.

Curiosity Rover Specifications

The rover weighs 1,980 pounds, which is significantly lighter than a standard car (3,300 pounds). Despite its relatively small weight, NASA compares its dimensions to those of a small SUV (10 feet long by 8.8 feet wide by 7.2 feet tall). It is much larger than other Mars rovers like Spirit and Opportunity. In addition to its body, Curiosity also has an arm that can reach 7.2 feet. That arm is essential to Curiosity’s operations because it can actually collect samples from the surface of Mars.

Curiosity conducts rock, soil, and air analyzes to determine if the planet was once suitable for life. The rover itself acts as a laboratory and is the “largest and most capable rover ever sent to Mars,” according to NASA.

Some of the tools in Curiosity’s lab include a mass spectrometer and an X-ray diffraction and fluorescence instrument that can identify the chemical composition of soils collected by the arm. The Mars Hands Lens Imager is a camera attached to the rover’s arm that can take images so small that they could image a human hair in great detail. It can also take high resolution photos of fine materials at the distance of the lens. In fact, image fragments from Curiosity itself were amassed into a “selfie” portrait.

A 2018 selfie taken by Curiosity.NASA/JPL-Caltech

“There are a lot of obvious delta deposits where sediments were deposited in standing water. That shows you signs of ancient lakes or clay minerals everywhere. There is an incredibly thick succession of rocks that were deposited over time,” says Lakdawalla. “The mission is basically driving monotonously uphill, which means you’re driving from before to after. So you are reading the story in order. So that’s really very helpful.”

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Gale Crater: A Treasure Trove of Data

Fortunately, Curiosity scored quickly after landing on the Martian surface. Conglomerate rock near the rover’s landing site consisted of rounded pebbles and sand that normally formed from flowing water.

After its initial landing, Curiosity was remotely navigated to a region of Gale Crater called Yellowknife Bay. There, he collected his first drilled rock sample from Mars, called “John Klein,” which gave exactly what the researchers expected.

Chemical and geological analyzes performed at John Klein identified the rock as the Sheepbed Mudstone which was interpreted as having formed from an ancient lake. Evidence of a large body of still water confirmed that Mars had water that remained on the surface for a long period. It contained sulfur, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and carbon, all the necessary requirements for life as we understand it on Earth. The pH levels also indicated that the atmospheric chemistry of that time could support life. This type of rock can support the kind of microbial life that would consume energy from the chemicals within the rocks.

By drilling into this rock, named John Klein, NASA discovered much about the aquatic history of Mars. NASA/JPL-Caltech

A second sample from Yellowknife Bay provided another important first in space history. While rocks from other worlds, such as the Moon, have been dated by laboratory analysis on Earth, Curiosity provided the first laboratory age of a rock performed by analysis on another planet.

Ken Farley, a professor of geochemistry at Caltech, proposed using potassium-argon dating to date the rock itself. Some rocks contain a radioactive potassium isotope, potassium-40, which decays to argon-40, which remains stable. The isotope decays at a known rate, so the ratio of potassium 40 to argon 40 can provide an approximate age. The results showed that the rock itself formed between 3.86 billion and 4.56 billion years ago.

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Curiosity used surface age dating, which counts the number of cosmic ray isotopes that penetrate the top few meters of a planetary surface, to determine how long a surface has been exposed. Curiosity’s analysis revealed that the rock sample had only been exposed to the surface 80 million years ago. Cosmic ray isotopes can degrade the quality and quantity of organic samples, but on the geological time scale 80 million years is not that long. This is good for searching for evidence of life on Mars.

The discrepancy between the age of the rock and the time of its recent exposure to the surface is attributed to wind erosion. As Curiosity witnessed in 2018 during a dust storm that blanketed the entire planet, dust storms on Mars are no joke. Theoretically, this information can help scientists identify better locations to collect rock samples that may be less exposed to wind erosion and thus cosmic rays, which can break down organic matter, an important aid in search for life

Although it took years of planning to get Curiosity to Mars, part of Lakdawalla’s interest in Curiosity stemmed from the fact that, unlike other missions, he describes the nature of the Curiosity mission as a road trip.

“The rover mission is not planned months in advance, it is planned every day that new data is obtained, to decide what to do with the rover the next day,” he explains.

For example, Curiosity spent much more time in Yellowknife Bay than expected. Lakdawalla remembers: “They were stuck there for a year. And so they did not start driving to the mountain. [Aeolis Mons]until almost the first anniversary of his landing.”

Since arriving at the base of Aeolis Mons, Curiosity has been moving slowly, sampling thin layers of the geologic record as it climbs in elevation and progresses through Mars’ history, continuing to find promising evidence of a planet that once was. it may have been fit for life.

Now, Curiosity is still hard at work and is on its way to its next destination to collect more samples at the Aeolis Mons base. We’ll have to stay tuned to see what else it has to reveal to us in the future.

If there’s one thing Lakdawalla would like people to know about the Curiosity mission as it continues, it’s that “you can see all the images Curiosity took. They arrive on Earth and go out on the web as soon as they are available to the science team. It has become a tradition for missions to Mars. Some other NASA missions do as well. It’s great because it means the public can follow the road trip.”

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