His mission was to last only two years. Ten years later, Curiosity is still roaming the Martian soil. After a November 26, 2011 launch, the rover landed on the Red Planet on August 6, 2012 (August 5 at 10:32 PM PT).
“Curiosity has enabled a change of scale in planetary exploration, by bringing a small laboratory on site, but also to establish strategies and ask the right questions for the next missions”, recalls Olivier Gasnault, scientist in charge of France from ChemCam, a French – American instrument aboard Curiosity.
“I have been fortunate to be a part of this mission since before takeoff. I was a young graduate then, writes Scott VanBommel, a scientist at the University of Washington. I remember the great joy that the whole room gave out on landing. I have so many memories… Especially the dust storm of 2018 that swept all over the Martian soil. And left Curiosity the only active rover on the planet until Perseverance arrived 18 months later. »
A look back at five major Curiosity discoveries.
There was water on Mars
Shortly after arriving on Mars, Curiosity discovered pebbles. After several analyses, these would have formed in a river no deeper than one meter. The water was not or only slightly salty, so drinkable.
A discovery confirmed when the rover reached Mount Sharp, a 300 m rock formation was found to have been formed from mud in shallow rivers.
Rivers and even lakes have existed for a million years or more.
There was life on Mars
We are certainly far from the gray or green Martians. But Curiosity’s analyzes showed that the necessary ingredients for microbial life were there: sulfur, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon.
A little later, the analysis of several samples taken by drilling showed organic molecules, the basis of a form of life.
Be careful, scientists will be careful: This shows that there was everything for life to arise on Mars, not that some form of life really existed.
The mysterious methane
Curiosity’s spectrometer has recorded levels of methane in the atmosphere that vary according to the “seasons”. Which raises questions for the scientists, because this methane is only produced by living organisms or a reaction between rock and water, for example. So the question arises: how is this methane formed? Why does it experience such variations?
The exploration of Mars will be complicated
During its 10 years on the ground, Curiosity received two types of radiation beyond the limits set by NASA for human exploration: cosmic rays and solar particles.
We will therefore have to think about specific shields and protections (including combos). Which is more than useful for a future mission to the Red Planet.
A significant atmosphere
Mars’ current atmosphere contains heavy forms of hydrogen, carbon and argon. This shows that Mars has lost most of its original atmosphere and the presence of water. The loss occurred via the upper atmosphere. And which is now being scrutinized by the space probe Maven.
Ten years of curiosity in 10 numbers
- 2.1 x 3 x 2.8: this is the height, length and width of the rover in meters.
- 899 kg: that’s his weight!
- 28.2 km distance traveled.
- 612m height covered.
- 35 samples taken after drilling.
- 6 samples collected from the ground.
- 494,540 images sent to Earth.
- 310.2 GB of data sent to Earth.
- 4,027,432 orders and instructions sent to Curiosity from Earth.
- 883 scientific articles published after reviewing Curiosity data
And now ?
In April, NASA extended Curiosity’s mission until September 2025. The robot is about to discover a region whose soil consists essentially of sulfates that it has yet to explore.
“This zone, which we see a lot on Mars, marks a climatic transition towards the dryness and desiccation that we now know”, explains Olivier Gasnault, scientist in charge of ChemCam France.
At a slower pace, the robot moves to spare its abilities towards an 800 m wide valley, at the bottom of which the scientists believe they can make out the remains of a canal. “We wonder if this is not one of the last currents on Mars,” says Olivier Gasnault, who hopes to confirm this hypothesis.
“Like the members of the science and engineering team, Discovery has aged. He has less energy and his mechanisms are damaged. Such is the life of a rover on Mars. It has been the case for Spirit and Opportunity,” points out Scott VanBommel. Yet they continued their mission and helped develop today’s rovers. Curiosity has made many scientific discoveries. And counting as we continue to explore Gale Crater and Mount Sharp.”