After just a year working on Mars, the NASA rover Curiosity is changing the way we look at our solar system.
Scientists say it may change how we look at ourselves, too.
"This work changes the picture of the solar system that we've had," Jennifer Trosper, NASA's deputy project manager for the Mars Science Lab Mission, told Computerworld. "In terms of the picture of the solar system that we all grew up learning, what if you draw a picture of it millions or billions of years ago and Mars was blue and looked more like Earth?
NASA's rover Curiosity took this self-portrait, combining dozens of exposures taken by using a camera on the end of its robotic arm. (Image: NASA)
"This is a stepping stone," she said. "If we can learn about the past of Mars, we might someday be able to learn about these Earth-like planets that we're seeing very far away. And that could change our whole thinking about the solar system."
One year ago today, Curiosity, a plutonium-powered robotic rover the size of a small SUV, landed on the Martian surface. In those 12 months, it has been driving across Mars' rocky and sandy surface, taking 36,700 full-size images and 35,000 thumbnail images, firing more than 75,000 laser shots, measuring the atmosphere, and scooping and analyzing Mars soil. It also became the first rover to drill into a rock on a planet other than Earth.
Curiosity has already made significant findings even though it's only half-way through its primary two-year mission.
In fact, Curiosity, which joined its robotic predecessors Opportunity and Spirit on Mars early on Aug. 6, 2012, quickly achieved its main science goal: finding that ancient Mars could have supported life.
Last September, NASA scientists reported that Curiosity had uncovered evidence of a "vigorous" thousand-year water flow on the surface of Mars. That was important since Curiosity's primary mission was to discover whether Mars has -- or ever had -- the ability to support life, even in microbial form.
In March, Curiosity reported another key finding, when analysis of the dust from its first drilled Martian rock showed the presence of sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon - all key chemical ingredients for life.
The evidence that Mars once held long-standing water as well as these key chemicals meant the Red Planet could have supported life in the distant past.
"We've not found any smoking gun for life yet, but it's exiting to find a place that could have supported it," said Bethany Ehlmann, an assistant professor of planetary science at CalTech and a participating scientist on NASA's Curiosity team. "One of the biggest questions is how unique is our planet? Is Earth rare or common? Is there life elsewhere? If there's life on a neighboring planet, maybe it tells us something about the distribution of life in the rest of the universe."
For a machine that is working anywhere from about 34 million to 250 million miles away (depending on where both Earth and Mars are in their orbits), Curiosity is conducting some impressive science.
"It's the most powerful research tool that we have on another planet that has gone through an evolutionary process that's very similar to Earth," said Kerri Cahoy, a professor in aeronautics and astronautics at MIT and a NASA scientist working on projects at Goddard Space Flight Center. "It's about understanding what can happen to a planet, what conditions are ripe for life to form and if life never existed there, then why not? What's so special about where we are and how can we protect that?"
While Curiosity has not found any sign that there ever was organic life on Mars, scientists are hoping the rover is moving into position to do just that.
Earlier this summer, Curiosity began a long trek to what has always been the focus of its two-year primary mission: Mount Sharp. It's a six-mile, arduous journey for a rover that, so far at least, only covers between 130 feet and 330 feet a day.
The trip to Mount Sharp could take seven months or maybe even an entire year, depending on how often scientists have Curiosity stop to investigate anything of interest along the way. But once there, NASA scientists are hopeful that Mars will reveal even more clues about his history.
"When we started this whole mission, the base of Mount Sharp was the most likely place to find a habitable environment," said Trosper. "We've already done that, but maybe there is a greater likelihood of finding an organic signature there."
Trosper noted that within a month, Curiosity should be making more ground on its daily drives because the rover will be able to start doing more decision-making on its own. NASA programmers and engineers will be giving Curiosity additional software for what they're calling auto-navigation.
Right now, Curiosity takes pictures of the terrain around it and sends them to NASA. There, its drivers, wearing 3D glasses, make sure they understand where the rover is, what obstacles -- such as rocks, holes or soft sand -- are around it. Then they plot the drive it will make the next day.
However, if the rover has to drive up a hill, scientists plotting its course don't know what's on the other side, so they have the rover stop at the top, take more pictures and wait for more instructions.
With auto-navigation software, the rover should be able to decide for itself whether it's safe to proceed on its own. That means Curiosity could drive an additional 200 to 300 feet a day, potentially more than doubling its previous average mileage.
Adding auto-navigation capabilities won't require a software upgrade, though NASA programmers are working to make sure the rover's current software can handle the additional instructions it will get.
In November, however, it will get a software upgrade. Trosper said NASA is wrapping up work on that update now.
The stats behind Curiosity's first year
Robotic rover has spent a year driving, drilling and exploring
A payload more than 10 times as massive as those of earlier Mars rovers; 10 science instruments and 17 cameras; Driven about 1,600 to 1,800 meters; Drilled into two rocks; Scooped up five soil samples; Sent 190 gigabits of information back to Earth; Received more than 300,000 commands from controllers at NASA; Had one software switch out, going from landing-focused software to driving/science-focused software shortly after landing, and Had one software upgrade, with NASA programmers sending up new code this past spring.
The new software should make it easier for scientists to judge distance in the images the rover takes, as well as giving it more stability while it's drilling. The update will also enable Curiosity to immediately send high-priority images to Earth instead of waiting to send them at day's end.
Trosper noted that tens of thousands of people have worked on the project over several years, including programmers, chemists, atmospheric scientists, engineers, IT security and aerospace engineers.
With so many scientists working on the project and Curiosity's current health, Trosper said she's hoping the rover will work well past its planned two-year mission.
"I'm very hopeful that Curiosity will last years and years like Opportunity and Spirit," she added. "Opportunity is 10 years old. I'm hopeful for 10 years for Curiosity. I'm hopeful it could last till my kids are old enough to work on it, but my kids are young so that may be too hopeful."
For today anyway, Cahoy is happy simply to mark Curiosity's one-year anniversary.
"It's a wonderful milestone because a year in operation in a harsh environment on another planet after a crazy landing is really notable," she said. "You design missions hoping they'll last long enough to get good results and Curiosity has done that already.
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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