Mars rover celebrates a year of discovery


The reaction from the Nasa control room as the rover landed

It's exactly a year since that nerve-shredding descent of the Curiosity rover to the surface of Mars.

Who can forget the agonising "seven minutes of terror" as the Nasa robot entered the planet's atmosphere and hurtled towards the ground?

The engineers who designed the vehicle's landing mechanism said they had every confidence it would work, but they also conceded their hovering "skycrane" looked a little "crazy".

We needn't have worried; everything worked like a dream. So well in fact that the robot came to rest about 1.5km (one mile) from where navigators had put their notional bull's-eye - and that after a journey of 570 million km (355 million miles) from Earth. Truly impressive.

So, 12 months on, what has Curiosity told us about Mars?

The rover landed on the floor of the 155km (95 miles) wide Gale Crater, close to a tall mound of rock referred to as Mount Sharp.

12 months of graft on Mars

  • 190 gigabits of data returned to Earth
  • 36,700 full images and 35,000 thumbnails
  • Laser sensor has fired over 75,000 shots
  • Odometer shows more than 1,760m driven

According to satellite imagery, this 5km (three miles) high peak has sediment layers at its base that look as though they were deposited in, or substantially altered by, water - a perfect place, everyone expected, to look for signs that Mars might once have had environments capable of supporting microbial life.

The first year of operations has seen Curiosity firmly establish the planet's past habitability potential - but not at Mount Sharp.

Such have been the geological treasures out on the crater floor that the rover has been able to fulfil its main mission objectives before even reaching its primary destination.

Just in the act of landing, Curiosity was able to uncover remarkable information about Mars' ancient history.

Dust blown away by its descent engines revealed conglomerates - rocks made up of small pebbles cemented together by finer material.

When the vehicle's survey instruments got a close-up look at these stone jumbles, they were able to confirm that the pebbles were just the sort of gravels you'd find in rivers on Earth.

Scientists' calculations indicated the pebbles' edges had been rounded in waters that flowed to depths that were very likely waist-deep at times.

Link Gale's conglomerates: The kind of thing you would find on Earth

And there was more. Analysis of mudstones drilled just half a kilometre from the landing site pointed to the presence, billions of years ago, of a lake where neutral waters would have collected for extended periods. In fact, the more Curiosity looked, the clearer the evidence became for a wetter past at Gale, with the Shaler outcrop being my personal favourite.

This pile of thin, inclined layers of sediment is a classic sign of cross-stratification - a rock feature sculpted by water moving in a turbulent flow. It's something routinely observed by geologists on Earth.

"I think what Gale has shown us so far is that Mars is truly a good place to explore," says Prof Sanjeev Gupta, a Curiosity mission scientist from Imperial College London, UK.

"We've seen this diverse pattern of ancient environments, a tremendous richness - lakes lapping up on shorelines and rivers sloshing into these lakes.

"And it's not just surface water flow, either; we've seen sub-surface flow as well - water moving through the rocks.

"So, while the rocks are static, as geologists we see this dynamic picture of the landscape, and it's been really exciting."

Shaler Shaler records the action of a turbulent flow of water

Of course, the fact that water may have been plentiful in Mars' distant past is not the same as saying the planet also hosted life. It's just a prerequisite, certainly as we understand it on Earth.

Other "must haves" include a source of energy to drive the metabolism of organisms, and a source of carbon to build their cellular structures.

All life on Earth trades off a source of organic molecules, such as amino acids. Curiosity has yet to see this availability signal at Gale, but that is not really surprising.

Take a trip to Mars

Mars Rover

Even in Earth rocks where we know sediments have been laid down in proximity to biology, we still frequently find no organic traces. The evidence doesn't preserve well and in the particularly harsh surroundings of modern-day Mars, this is likely to be doubly so.

And then, of course, there are plenty of non-biological processes that can produce organics, so it wouldn't be an "A equals B" situation even if Curiosity were to make such an identification.

Nonetheless, there is hope that the rover can turn up some interesting organic chemistry at Mt Sharp.

But it's going to take a while to get to the mountain. The preferred investigation site is some 8km (five miles) distant - a long way for a robot that moves at most about 100m a day.

The wait, however, will certainly be worth it. The tall succession of rocks should open the book on the geological evolution of Mars. In the many layers at the base of the mountain, researchers hope to see the record of different water events come and go, through perhaps hundreds of millions of years. And the pictures - they'll blow your mind, says Prof Dawn Sumner, a mission scientist from the University of California at Davis, US.

Mt Sharp The long sequence of rocks at Mt Sharp will help fill out the story of the geological evolution of the planet

"It's going to be like walking through a national park, like the Canyonlands of the US or the Bungle Bungle in Australia; it's just completely different from anywhere we've been on Mars so far.

"Even just looking at the images we have taken from kilometres away, you can see that it just looks amazing.

"The slopes on the sides of those hills are so steep they count as cliffs, and there'll be layers in them that will probably be different colours and textures."

The best is yet to come.

Jonathan Amos Article written by Jonathan Amos Jonathan Amos Science correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    This is a fantastic achievement - and so critically important considering our long term survival as a species depends on the lessons we learn from these first expeditions to other planets.

    Or you know, we could plow that money into smaller pupil/teacher ratios and reduced waiting times.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    I think the most significant discovery so far has been that of mudstones formed by neutral water. Whilst life can survive in some pretty harsh environments, a neutral one is far more favourable. It changes the prospect of past Martian life from just wishful thinking to a real possibility.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Excellent science, and a decent report by Mr Amos.

    Now cue the naysayers spouting on how better the money could be spent, and the B-bashers proclaiming about it all being His work anyway.

    Some people have no appreciation of a real achievement.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    I think money spent on schools and hospitals should be spent on more Mars research.

    But seriously Mars research is so improtant - one day we'll either need to start expanding to other planets or maybe even find evidence of life elsewhere. And those will make any current problems we currently have on earth seem quite small in comparison.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    Anyone saying that this is a waste of money needs a little perspective.

    This entire mission has cost less than the Olympics...yes, people running around in circles cost more than sending a probe to Mars that is providng us with information vital to the survival of our species.

    Running in circles provides what exactly? Oh that's right...smeg all...

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    11.anth smith
    What a waste of money and we should have spent the money on schools and hospitals.


    Good idea, but let's go further. Most of us waste money on quite a lot of not immediately useful things. Perhaps they should take a bit more tax from us and spend it on schools and hospitals...

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    I see the usual collection of luddites, nah sayers and god botherers have posted. It's amazing how much negativity the god of war brings out in people! I find these explorations fascinating and if our species still exists (or continues to evolve) after another 100/200 million years we will need to migrate to Mars as our sun continues to brighten and Earth become ever more uninhabitable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    If you want to waste money build a Cathedral.

    Space exploration expands peoples minds.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Wow, such a shame to see people who have so little joy and sense of adventure in their lives that they moan about this. It's amazing. Our family stayed up the evening this landed just to cheer it on. It's fantastic!

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    One day our descendants will need to leave our beloved '3rd rock'. Failure to evolve means failure as a species. Let's not bury our heads in the sand.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Excellent science. It is really worth sending robots to other planets.

    One thing we should learn is how precious our own planet is, and how much we need to protect the biodiversity we have.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Idiots who mention money wasted should realize space exploration isn't money wasted. It's benefits mayn't be immediate, but benefits will come. Ever realized how TV signals are beamed down or hurricane warnings come or how you use your GPS in ungodly locations. This wouldn't have happened if space exploration was considered a waste of money.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Looks like a hoax filmed in a New Mexican desert, to me ;)

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    To fan pete_townshends_hard_drive flames, it IS a waste of money. No eez, we do NOT need humans on Mars.Fools to think otherwise.We have not the will to clean up our planet from other 'truly' impressive' engineering feats. Our expert minds and vast sums of money we can seem to pull out of thin air for such things, when as a country we are skint, should be used properly. Look at OUR planet!

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Look at that strata in the pictures!!!! God or no God, this is spectacular!!!! The evidence of the previous existence of a liquid, presumably water, is plain the see. With every little step, we are getting closer to unravelling all mysteries of all the unknowns. Brilliant!

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Lord Howell is now able to state that Mars is desolate and is the ideal place for fracking without any insulting anyone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    12.Praise Him

    Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha! cannot stop laughing at this!

    And people moaning about the money, this could be groundbreaking stuff and we should be excited by it! There are plenty of other places that you could moan use up more money e.g. bankers bonuses but no of course groundbreaking science is where you choose to whine!

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    To the 'look how much this' cost brigade, you cant suspend scientific development until all the worlds poor are fed otherwise we would stand still. Should we have not developed the steam engine or the computer until there were no poor?
    Many of the technologies from missions like this will filter down to improve technology the rest of us use everyday.

  • Comment number 17.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    For everyone criticising the cost whilst people go hungry, get real. That argument only works for you if you give every penny of your spare cash after paying for what you NEED to those that have less.

    Discovery leads to progress, and the practical applications are not always obvious. As a race, we strive for more and strive for better. Sending probes to far flung places is a small part of that.


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