On August 6th 2016, NASA delivered the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) to the surface of Mars in what was called the “seven minutes of terror” – the period when the mission slammed into the tenuous Martian atmosphere to begin deceleration and a descent to the surface of the planet which culminated in the Curiosity rover being winched down gently from a hovering “sky crane” and then lowered until its wheels made firm contact with the ground.
The “seven minutes of terror” actually had a double meaning. Not only did it represent the time MSL would smash into Mars’ atmosphere and attempt its seemingly crazy landing, at the time of the event, the distance between Earth and Mars meant it took seven minutes to be returned to mission control from the red planet. Thus, even as the initial telemetry indicating the craft was entering the upper reaches of Mars’ tenuous atmosphere was being received, mission controls knew that in reality, the landing had either succeeded or failed.
Obviously, the attempt succeeded. Everything worked flawlessly, and Curiosity was delivered to the surface of Mars at 05:17 GMT on August 6th, 2012 (01:17, August 6th EDT, 22:17 PDT, August 5th). In the five years since that time, it is helped revolutionise our understanding of that enigmatic world – as well as adding somewhat to its mystery.
To call the mission a success is not an exaggeration; within weeks of its arrival inside the 154 kilometre (96 mile) wide Gale Crater, Curiosity was examining an ancient riverbed en route to a region of the crater dubbed “Yellowknife Bay”. It was there the rover made its first bombshell discovery: analysis of the area showed that billions of years ago it was home for the ideal conditions to potentially kick-start microbial life. It was, in essence, the achievement of mission’s primary goal: to identify if Mars may have once harboured the kind of conditions which might have given rise to life.
For the first year following its arrival on Mars, Curiosity continued to survey the regions relatively close to its landing zone, finding more evidence of a benign ancient environment. Then it started out on the next phase of its mission: the long traverse towards the massive bulk of “Mount Sharp” – officially called Aeolis Mons. A huge mound of rock deposited against the crater’s central impact peak, “Mount Sharp” rises from the crater floor to an altitude of some 5.5 km (3 mi), and imagining from orbit strongly suggested its formation was due, at least in part, to the presence of water in the crater at some point in Mars’ past.
The 8 km (5 mi) trip took the rover a year to complete, in part due to its relatively slow speed, in part due to the fact is had to travel a good way along the base of “Mount Sharp” to reach a point where it could commence an ascent up the slope; but mostly because there were a number of points of interest along the way where the mission scientists wanted to have a look around, investigate and sample.
For the last three years, the rover has been slowly making its way up “Mount Sharp”, climbing around 180 metres (600ft) vertically above the surrounding crater floor and visiting numerous points of interest – such as “Pahrump Hills”, the mixed terrain where “Mount Sharp” merges with the crater floor. Along the way, Curiosity has both confirmed that “Mount Sharp” was most likely the result of sedimentary deposits laid down during several periods of flooding in the crater before the water finally receded and wind action took over, sculpting the mound into its present shape down through the millennia.
The lakes within Gale crater may have actually been relatively short-lived, perhaps lasting just 1,000 years at a time, but Curiosity has shown that even during the dry inter-lake periods, water was very much a feature of Gale Crater, finding evidence of compressed water channels within the layers of rock which sit naturally exposed on “Mount Sharp’s” flanks.
Alongside the sedimentary layering of the mudstone comprising “Mount Sharp” and the compressed and long-dry water channels, a further sign that the region was once water rich comes in the form of the mineral hematite, which Curiosity has found on numerous occasions. Right now, the rover is making its way towards a feature dubbed “Vera Rubin Ridge” which orbital analysis shows to be rich in this iron-bearing mineral which requires liquid water to form. Beyond that is a clay-rich unit separating the hematite rich ridge from an area which show strong evidence for sulphates. These are also indicative of water having once been present, albeit less abundantly than along “Vera Rubin Ridge”, and thus hinting at a change in the local environment. Currently, Curiosity is expected to reach this area in about two years’ time, after studying “Vera Rubin Ridge” and the clay unit along the way.
Throughout the last five years, Curiosity has remained relatively healthy. There has been the odd unexpected glitch with the on-board computers, all of which have been successfully overcome. There has been some damage to the rover’s aluminium wheels. This did give rise to concern at the time it was noted, resulting in a traverse across rough terrain being abandoned in favour of a more circuitous and less demanding route up onto “Mount Sharp”. But overall, the wheels remain in reasonably sound condition.
The one major cause for concern at present lies with Curiosity’s drill mechanism. Trouble with this first began when vibrations from the drill percussive mechanism was noted to be having a negative impact on the rover’s robot arm.
More recently – since December 2016, in fact – all use of the drill has ceased, limiting Curiosity’s sample gathering capabilities. This has been due to an issue with the drill feed motor, which extends the drill head away from the robot arm during normal drilling operations, preventing the arm physically coming into contact with targets. Attempt to rectify the problem have so far been unsuccessful, so engineers are loot at ways to manoeuvre the rover’s arm and place the drill bit in contact with sample targets, avoiding the need to use the feed motor.
So with five years on Mars under its belt, and barring no major unforeseen incidents, Curiosity will continue its mission through the next five years, further enhancing our knowledge of Mars.