Science

As NASA’s Curiosity rover celebrates its tenth birthday on Mars, however is much from able to retire

As NASA’s Curiosity rover celebrates its tenth birthday on Mars, however is much from able to retire
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On Friday, NASA’s Curiosity rover will have a good time its 10the birthdays on Mars, and counting. The small car-sized rover made a mushy touchdown on the backside of Gale Crater on the evening of August 5, with a mission to seek out proof of previous habitability on the Purple Planet.

A decade later, NASA can say that Curiosity’s mission was a convincing success. It established the long-term presence of liquid water on the floor of Mars within the planet’s historical previous, a prerequisite for the existence of life. He additionally established with certainty the presence of natural chemical compounds which are the constructing blocks of potential life.

And moreover, Curiosity is a mission that’s nonetheless ongoing, with the plucky rover nonetheless climbing a mountain of sedimentary rock in what was as soon as an historical lake mattress on Mars.

“On the standing of the rover, usually, we’re delighted,” Ashwin Vasavada, venture scientist for the Curiosity mission, advised The Impartial. “The rover can nonetheless do all of the science that issues to the mission, even after 10 years.”

Curiosity and the science it enabled function an essential bridge in NASA’s Mars science program, connecting earlier missions like Spirit and Alternative Rovers, and even the Viking Landers of the Seventies, with the Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter that also they are exploring the Purple. Planet. Perseverance could characterize the cutting-edge drilling samples of Martian soil that might be returned to Earth for research within the 2030s, however Curiosity nonetheless has rather a lot to show scientists, in accordance with Dr. Vasavada.

“There’s nonetheless extra to return,” he stated, “That is the underside line.”

martian curiosity

Curiosity and Dr. Vasavada are literally impressed by the identical place: Mars within the Seventies.

“The pictures that basically grabbed me once I was like 10 years previous have been the Viking lander taking photos of this infinite desert panorama receding into the gap,” he stated.

The floor of Mars as photographed by the Viking 1 lander.

(Pot)

Viking 1 landed on Mars on July 20, 1976, and along with taking beautiful pictures of the floor, it performed the primary astrobiology experiments on the floor of the Purple Planet in hopes of discovering proof of extraterrestrial life. Mars, in spite of everything, mixed two very engaging traits for scientists searching for indicators of life, in accordance with Dr. Vasavada: It had a decently excessive likelihood of getting harbored life, and it was shut sufficient to check it.

“There could also be locations which have a greater probability of life, , perhaps now just like the oceans in Europa, however they’re too distant to discover effectively,” he stated. “Mars has at all times had that attraction and the best way I like to explain it’s like, Viking was the try to hit a house run.”

A failed try, in accordance with most scientists. Though some scientists nonetheless keep that the Viking 1 and a couple of landers discovered proof of life on Mars, the scientific consensus stays that Viking’s outcomes have been inconclusive.

“I feel if you happen to have been to ask planetary scientists in 1977, they’d simply say, we’re excited as a result of there’s liquid water. [on Mars], however we do not actually know a lot past that,’” stated Dr. Vasavada. “After that, NASA actually needed to regroup for a few many years.”

It wasn’t till the Nineteen Nineties, when the area company made the seek for life within the universe a major focus, that Mars analysis resumed.

“And so they devised a method the place they’d not go for the house run,” Dr. Vasavada stated. NASA would ship orbiters, just like the Mars International Surveyor launched in 1996, to Mars to check the floor and discover the perfect locations to land future missions. They’d then ship rovers to verify proof that Mars as soon as had massive quantities of liquid water.

“If liquid water was by no means there, there is no probability there was life there,” stated Dr. Vasavada. “That is the place [the rovers] Spirit and Alternative match. They have been truly despatched there to search for indicators of liquid water.”

“The subsequent a part of NASA’s technique was to increase the search past water to habitability, and that is Curiosity’s principal purpose,” Dr. Vasavada stated. Curiosity wouldn’t solely search for indicators of liquid water, however persistent liquid water, lakes and rivers which are flowing sufficient to present life an opportunity. And he would wish to seek for the essential chemical constructing blocks of life.

“That is why the rover is a bit large,” Dr. Vasavada stated. “It has a lot of totally different devices that have a look at all these totally different points of what a liveable planet would do. After which we wanted to have the ability to drill rock samples, as a result of we’re wanting into the previous.”

After all, which previous you have a look at depends upon the place you drill, “So we despatched it to Gale Crater, which is a 100-mile-diameter crater that has a giant pile of sediment, sedimentary rock,” stated Dr. Vasavada. “And this was tremendous thrilling, as a result of sedimentary rocks document a historical past in time: sediment is progressively deposited over thousands and thousands of years.”

The hope was that Curiosity might scale a five-kilometre-high pile of sedimentary rocks that had amassed in what NASA believed to be an historical crater lake, drill by the mud rocks, and discover proof of historical water and natural chemistry.

“In order that’s the place we have been on August 4, 2012. The day earlier than we landed,” stated Dr. Vasavada. “We had an amazing rover, and we had a touchdown website that supplied the perfect probability we thought wherever on the planet of discovering a liveable atmosphere, however there have been positively no ensures.”

habitability take a look at

Within the years since its touchdown 10 years in the past, Curiosity has climbed 600 meters above the mound of sedimentary rock in Gale Crater, in accordance with Dr. Vasavada.

“What we discovered is that the majority of these 600 vertical meters are made from rock layers which have ample proof of interplay with liquid water,” he stated. “They’re mud that shaped on the backside.”

It takes time to build up 600 meters of muddy sediment, so these measurements result in one of many principal discoveries of the Curiosity mission, in accordance with Dr. Vasavada: Liquid water was current in Gale Crater on Mars for a very long time. .

“It is like tons of of 1000’s of years, however in all probability thousands and thousands or tens of thousands and thousands of years,” he stated.

“Tied to that discovery is the invention of all of the chemical necessities for all times,” added Dr. Vasavada. “We have been capable of drill into these lake mattress shales, and inside these shales, we have been capable of finding these natural molecules.”

So, three or 4 billion years in the past, within the Gale Crater, favorable circumstances existed for all times to come up on Mars.

“And what’s fascinating is that a lot of the historical past that Curiosity has explored predates time on Earth,” Dr. Vasavada stated. “Earth turned the liveable planet that it’s right this moment largely after the time period we’re exploring in Gale Crater on Mars.”

4 billion years in the past, extraterrestrial scientists passing by our photo voltaic system would have chosen Mars because the almost definitely place to seek out life, not Earth.

Indicators of life

However did Mars harbor life so many billions of years in the past? That is not a query Curiosity was designed to reply, however it’s one which may very well be answered by Perseverance. Curiosity’s successor touched down in a dry riverbed on Mars on February 18, 2021, and has up to now spent its practically 18 months on the Purple Planet drilling rock and soil samples and storing them for later restoration as a part of the NASA Pattern Return Mission. When the samples return to Earth within the 2030s, scientists will be capable of convey again complete laboratories to find out if these samples include indicators of Martian life, current or historical.

It is a mission that takes over from Curiosity, and a mission that by no means would have occurred with Curiosity’s successes.

“If we came upon that Gale Crater was a barren wasteland,” Dr. Vasavada stated, “if we discovered a giant pile of mud and we have been utterly unsuitable in our assumptions about it earlier than touchdown; It will have been harder for NASA to go forward with a mission like Perseverance and put all that concentrate on searching for indicators of life.”

However as you talked about, Curiosity is not carried out but.

The rover will have a good time its 10the birthday persevering with its sluggish ascent by the sedimentary mound of rocks in Gale Crater, the place its most up-to-date samples start to trace at large adjustments to historical Mars. Samples that when confirmed ample clay minerals now exhibit sulfate-rich rocks, in accordance with Dr. Vasavada.

“We do not know what it means, however considered one of our principal hypotheses is that these sulfate minerals have been enriched by one thing like what occurs when lakes and water dry up and go away salty minerals behind,” he stated. “It could be an indication that the planet as a complete is doing that.”

In order Curiosity strikes ahead, it might not solely show to have discovered proof of a previous interval of habitability, it might additionally present clues as to when and the way that interval ended.

Assuming the rugged rover can nonetheless carry itself. Dr. Vasavada thinks the percentages are good.

“We have had some fairly important challenges. We needed to redesign the best way we drilled twice within the mission now due to some anomalies that occurred and the lack of a few mechanical components from the rover,” he stated. “We have had plenty of issues in 10 years like getting old machines do, however we have at all times been capable of bounce again.”

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