Not to make anyone feel old, but it’s been over 11 years since NASA’s Curiosity Rover landed on Mars. The rover has now seen the sun rise on Mars over 4,000 times. During this time, the rover has driven almost 32 kilometers on Mars, making its way up the flanks of Mount Sharp while studying the ancient history of water on Mars.
The past 11 years have been quite the journey, but it hasn’t been all perfect. There have been a few computer glitches over the years, Curiosity’s wheels have gaping holes and gashes from driving over sharp rocks, and recently one of its camera filter wheels became stuck. But since the rover’s nominal mission was designed to last about two Earth years, Curiosity has proven to be a tough and enduring machine.
About three billion years ago, rushing water on Mars carried mud and boulders down a steep slope and deposited them into a vast fan-shaped debris pile. NASA’s Curiosity Rover has been trying to reach a ridge overlooking the region, and now finally, the rover has reached this vantage point after three years of climbing. NASA released a 360-degree view image of the region, showing the jumble of rocks strewn about by the rushing water. Now, Curiosity is reaching out to touch and study them.
The Mars rover Curiosity continues to make its way up the slopes of Mount Sharp on Mars. On April 8th, its navigation cameras snapped a pair of images—one in the morning and one in the afternoon. They show distinctly different lighting angles during a crisp Martian winter day. The images got combined with a color overlay to produce a fantastic “postcard” from the Red Planet.
NASA’s Curiosity Rover usually looks down at the ground, studying nearby rocks and craters. But sometimes, it looks up and sees something wonderful.
A new image released by Curiosity shows beautiful sun rays, called crepuscular rays, streaming through a bank of clouds on Mars at sunset. While relatively common here on Earth, they have never been seen on Mars. Crepuscular comes from crepusculum, the Latin word for twilight.
Another image from the rover shows a feather-shaped iridescent cloud in the high atmosphere on Mars.
MSL Curiosity is going about its business exploring Mars. The high-tech rover is currently exploring the sulphate-bearing unit on Mt. Sharp, the central peak in Mars’ Gale Crater. Serendipity placed a metal meteorite in its path.
The Curiosity rover has now reached its primary target on Mount Sharp on Mars, the mountain in the middle of Gale Crater the rover has been climbing since 2014. This target is not the summit, but a region over 600 meters (2,000 feet) up the mountain that planetary geologists have long anticipated reaching.
Known as the “sulfate-bearing unit,” the region is a boundary between the rocks that saw a lot of water in their history and those that didn’t; a possible shoreline, if you will. That boundary is already providing insights into Mars’ transition from a wet planet to dry, filling in a key gap in the understanding of the planet’s history.
For a spacecraft that’s traveled millions of kilometers across space and driven on the surface of Mars, Curiosity is holding up pretty darned well. That’s the assessment from the operations team at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This week they celebrated ten years of the rover’s exploration across one of the more forbidding terrains in the solar system.
We are carbon-based life forms. That means the basis for the chemical compounds that forms our life is the element carbon. It’s crucial because it bonds with other elements such as hydrogen and oxygen to create the complex molecules that are part of life. So, when we look for evidence of life elsewhere in the solar system, we look for carbon. That includes Mars.
Since 2012, NASA’s Curiosity rover has been exploring the Gale Crater for clues about Mars’ past and possible evidence that it once supported life. For the past year, this search has centered on the lower levels of Mount Sharp, a transitional zone between a clay-rich region and one filled with sulfates (a type of mineral salt). These regions can offer insight into Mars’ warm, watery past, but the transition zone between them is also of scientific value. In short, the study of this region may provide a record of the major climatic shift that took place billions of years ago on Mars.
For example, this region has unique geological features that include clay minerals that appear as flaky layers of sedimentary rock. One in particular, “The Prow,” was recently imaged by Curiosity and had the mission science teams buzzing. These features formed when water still flowed into the Gale Crater, depositing sediment at the base of Mount Sharp. Higher on the mountain, the hill was likely covered in wind-swept dunes that hardened into rock over time. In between them is where the flaky layers formed, possibly as a result of small ponds or streams that wove them among the dunes.