NASA's Curiosity Mars rover is celebrating its one-year anniversary on the Martian surface as the space agency looks forward to more amazing discoveries as the rover begins its second full year of exploration.
So far, the rover and its two-year planned mission have brought back incredible finds to scientists back on Earth, including the discovery of solid evidence that ancient Mars could have supported life, according to NASA.
"Without a doubt, everyone here at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), NASA and everyone else on the team is very excited about the mission to date," Rick Welch, the mission manager at the JPL, told eWEEK. "Looking back to a year ago, I don't think that anybody could have predicted how well the mission would go."
Other rovers have visited Mars in the past, but none before have had the capabilities to dig into the Martian soil and them analyze the soil and rock using an on-board laboratory. That changed with Curiosity, said Welch.
"To actually scoop up the soil and get samples, it has been an incredible invention and adventure," he said. To accomplish those feats, the latest rover is the size of an SUV back on Earth, so it had to be brought to the Martian surface gingerly so it wasn't destroyed on impact last August.
Once landed, the scientists initially took a bit of a detour with the rover because it landed in an area with amazing geology, said Welch. "When we saw where we actually landed, at this conjunction of three different terrain types just east of the planned landing site, it made sense to look at this area first. We spent the better part of the year exploring that area."
That resulted in a six- to seven-month detour to explore an area around an ancient river system, which is now dry, in a valley that's called Peace Vallis, according to an earlier eWEEK story. There, the rover found the remnants of a former river, which spread out across the crater floor like a fan, where conditions could have existed for life on Mars.
That discovery was huge, said Welch. "It really gives us good evidence of a habitable environment, and that's what this mission is all about," he said.
So far, the rover is doing very well on the Martian surface, said Welch, who is a 20-year veteran of rover missions. The systems have been working well as a whole, meeting expectations. It's been great."
The one-year landing anniversary for the rover occurs early in the morning on Aug. 6, which officially will mark the halfway point for the planned activities of the two-year mission.
The JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., and manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C., according to NASA. The JPL designed and built the project's Curiosity rover.
Since landing, Curiosity has so far sent more than 190 gigabits of data back to Earth, and has sent back more than 36,700 full images and 35,000 thumbnail images, according to NASA. The equipment on board the rover has also fired more than 75,000 laser shots to investigate the composition of targets, collected and analyzed sample material from two rocks, and driven more than 1 mile (1.6 kilometers), according to the space agency.
In July, the Curiosity rover began a long-awaited, 5-mile-long journey across the terrain of the red planet to begin exploring a rocky area known as Mount Sharp, 11 months after the rover arrived on the planet's surface.