Despite showing signs of wear and tear, the intrepid spacecraft is about to begin an exciting new chapter in its mission as it scales a Martian mountain.
Ten years ago today, a jetpack lowered NASA’s Curiosity rover onto the Red Planet, beginning the SUV-sized explorer’s search for evidence that billions of years ago , Mars had the necessary conditions to support microscopic life.
Since then, Curiosity has traveled nearly 18 miles (29 kilometers) and climbed 2,050 feet (625 meters) exploring Gale Crater and the Mount Sharp foothills within it. The rover analyzed 41 rock and soil samples, relying on a suite of scientific instruments to learn what they reveal about Earth’s rocky sibling. And that prompted a team of engineers to devise ways to minimize wear and keep the rover rolling: In fact, Curiosity’s mission was recently extended for three yearsallowing it to continue among the fleet of important NASA astrobiological missions.
A bounty of science
It has been a busy decade. Curiosity has studied the skies of the Red Planet, capturing images of bright clouds and drifting moons. The rover’s radiation sensor allows scientists to measure the amount of high-energy radiation future astronauts would be exposed to the Martian surfacehelping NASA figure out how to keep them safe.
But most importantly, Curiosity has determined that liquid water along with the chemicals and nutrients needed to sustain life have been present for at least tens of millions of years in Gale Crater. The crater once contained a lake, which has increased and decreased in size over time. Each layer higher up on Mount Sharp serves as a record of a more recent era of Mars’ environment.
Now the intrepid rover is crossing a canyon that marks the transition to a new region, which is thought to have formed as the water dried up, leaving behind salty minerals called sulphates.
“We see evidence of dramatic changes in the ancient Martian climate,” said Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “The question now is whether the habitable conditions Curiosity has found so far persisted through these changes. Did they disappear, never to return, or did they come and go over millions of years? »
Curiosity has made remarkable progress up the mountain. In 2015, the team captured a picture “postcard” distant mounds. A single point in this image is a rock the size of a curiosity nicknamed “Ilha Novo Destino” – and, nearly seven years later, the rover traveled it last month en route to the sulphate region.
The team plans to spend the next few years exploring the sulphate-rich zone. Inside, they have targets in mind like the Gediz Vallis Channel, which may have formed during a flood late in Mount Sharp’s history, and large cemented fractures which show the effects of groundwater higher up the mountain.
How to keep a Rover on a roll
What’s Curiosity’s secret to maintaining an active lifestyle into the ripe old age of 10? A team of hundreds of dedicated engineers, of course, working both in person at JPL and away from home.
They catalog every crack in the wheels, test every line of computer code before it’s beamed into space, and drill endless rock samples into JPL’s Mars Yard, ensuring Curiosity can do the same safely.
“As soon as you land on Mars, everything you do is based on the fact that there’s no one around to fix it for 100 million miles,” Andy Mishkin, Curiosity’s acting project manager, told Reuters. JPL. “It’s about making smart use of what’s already on your rover.”
Curiosity’s robotic drilling process, for example, has been reinvented several times since landing. At one point, the drill was offline for over a year as engineers redesigned its use look more like a hand drill. More recently, a set of braking mechanisms that allowed the robotic arm to move or stay in place stopped working. Although the arm works as usual since engineers hired a set of spares, the team also learned to drill more gently to preserve the new brakes.
The team took a similar approach to dealing with the rover’s slowly diminishing power. Curiosity builds on a long life nuclear powered battery rather than solar panels to keep rolling. As the plutonium pellets in the battery decay, they generate heat which the rover converts into energy. Due to the gradual breakdown of the pellets, the rover cannot do as much in a day as it did in its first year.
Mishkin said the team continues to budget how much energy the rover uses each day and has determined what activities can be done in parallel to optimize the energy available to the rover. “Curiosity definitely does more multitasking where it’s safe to do so,” Mishkin added.
Through careful planning and engineering hacks, the team expects the brave rover to still have years of exploration ahead of it.
Learn more about the mission
JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, built Curiosity for NASA and is leading the mission on behalf of the agency’s science mission directorate in Washington.
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.