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 375.

    374 This is a scientific expedition that is consistent with the current state of the art of engineering and the real life environmental challenges the mission will likely confront and have to survive. This is not a science fiction movie and these are not special effects. That's why I said early on too many people have watched too many Sci Fi programs. Nor is it intended as public entertainment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 374.

    Curiosity is a fantastic achievement from a scientific point of view, but hundreds of close ups of rocks are putting me off... "can't see the wood for the trees" comes to mind.
    We need faster moving craft as well, that can cover 10's of miles a day (balloon or plane), that send back stunning views 24/7 and keeps the tax paying layman happy...maybe even finding signs of past civilizations?

  • rate this

    Comment number 373.

    Why are Brits concerned about how much US tax money is spent on NASA?We wasted a lot more money on Britain.For example, after WWII ended we didn't know how long it would take to rebuild it or get its economy back on track.So we gave them a huge loan at a ridiculous rate, 50 years at 2%.And they used every minute of it to pay it back by which time $US had highly depreciated.Enormous loss for us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 372.

    Lets stop the messing about. Send man up to the stars. If Mars once hosted life, lets find out the what's, whys and hows. Stuff budgetary concerns. Americans spent $110 Billion on fast food last year. The NASA budget was $19 Billion. Imagine......

  • rate this

    Comment number 371.

    @315 phhpro: If 'common sense' was a reliable guide to anything, we wouldn't need science at all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 370.

    Projects like the Mars rovers bring with them new leading edge technological challenges that when overcome lead to applications in many other fields that cannot be foreseen in advance. Much of our technology we take for granted today was born out of NASA and the US military. That includes the internet itself which started as the US army's "Arpanet." It is money well invested.

  • rate this

    Comment number 369.

    As far as sending people,. 'Mars-Direct' or it's variant 'Mars-for-Less' are the way to go as they'd use existing technology as opposed to making currently unavailable propulsion systems mission critical.
    They also provide a much better mars-surface time to transit time ratio than some other proposed super expensive battle-star galactica style missions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 368.


  • rate this

    Comment number 367.

    All the money spent on this project could have produced devices that would put balls into bags on frames, little holes in the ground, etc.

  • Comment number 366.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 365.

    I love science! great working pushing us forward to all involved in this project - i was pained to learn that this was a 1.5Bil project, and governments are spending multiples of this on trains/politics & weapons. Just think where we could be if all that money was invested in this and other scientific fields.

  • rate this

    Comment number 364.


    Inspiration: Makes people interested in the STEM fields and it gives them ambition to achieve great things. Increasing funding to schools does not make people interested in learning

    Spin off technology: There are thousands of inventions from space technology, many of which lay in the medical world and benefit humanity

    Progress: We would still be living in caves without it

  • rate this

    Comment number 363.

    Same old comments "Why waste the money". Why waste your time asking?
    I'm all for Space exploration. We are a curious species & spending money to explore for the possibility of survival of us in the future is a no brainer.
    Money is a man-made item. Space isn't.

  • rate this

    Comment number 362.

    350.JPF Goodman
    8 Hours ago
    we really should try to make our own planet viable before moving on.


    What evidence is there that our own planet is not viable?

  • rate this

    Comment number 361.

    350.JPF Goodman
    Im fairly certain Mars and Venus never colided. I think you're thinking of the Mars size object that hit Earth with the collision resulting in the formation of our Moon. The Moon is very important for life on Earth as it stabilises the tilt

  • rate this

    Comment number 360.

    333.Green Legend

    In the 1970s it was calculated that we humans could heal the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the poor and educate the ignorant with what we spend on weapons in TWO WEEKS.


    By what factor has the total amount of money spent on the sick, uneducated, unclothed and hungry exceded that 2 week amount since 1970?

  • rate this

    Comment number 359.

    I am an historian of sorts, not a scientist. I do however believe that space exploration a la Star Trek is very much a possibility. Much of that achieved to date would have seemed impossible to even a Victorian. We have the imagery in our heads and someone, somewhere will be working on it. Circumstances may alter practical application but it will happen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 358.

    @335. Photos taken from orbiting satellite clearly show the lander and other evidence of moon landings. Moreover, every organisation leaks over time and thousands were involved in the Apollo Project - difficult to believe if the landings never happened that something real & objective rather than fantasy wouldn't have surfaced by now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 357.

    The technological sophistication that allowed NASA to place Rover on Mars is nearly as exciting & significant as it's exploration and findings. Moreover, don't forget prior robotic vehicles and the fact they greatly exceeded their forecast mission life. Deeply impressive. Technological advancement is rarely wasted through spin off applications elsewhere. e.g..Material science.

  • rate this

    Comment number 356.

    335.jeffers - "..........Armstrong would never swear on the holy bible he did it..........

    .........he hated all the hype up to his passing.........."

    Erm, hello - maybe he simply wasn't religious..... come he would never turn down the chance to give a quote on all the subsequent space travel stories wherever asked by journalists.....?????


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