Mars may be the Earth’s closest interstellar neighbor, other than the Moon, but human astronauts haven’t made it to the surface of the red planet quite yet.
Instead, NASA has sent rovers — small semi-autonomous robots that explore the planet’s surface and send back information.
For the longest time, there were two — Opportunity and Curiosity — but Oppy succumbed to a sandstorm late in 2018, leaving Curiosity alone until the Mars 2020 rover arrives next year.
Let’s take a closer look at a day in the life of Curiosity as it moves around the red planet.
Arriving on Mars
In 2011, The Mars Science Laboratory mission launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida carrying the Curiosity rover that had been in development since 2004.
On November 26th, 2011 at 10:02 am Eastern Time, the mission launched atop an Atlas V rocket. It took eight months for the rover to reach the red planet, correcting it’s course four times throughout the journey.
On August 6th, 2012, the rover landed in the Gale Crater and began an awesome adventure that’s still happening today.
The rover’s aeroshell protected it as it moved through the red planet’s atmosphere, then a massive parachute deployed — 51 feet across, secured to the rover with more than 80 suspension lines. It seems excessive, but the parachute had to survive being deployed at Mach 2.2.
Curiosity weighs over a ton, making it too heavy to safely land with airbags. That’s where the rocket-powered descent stage came in. This final stage booster lowered Curiosity to the surface of the planet slowly on three tethers.
Once the Curiosity rover’s wheels touched the planet’s surface, the tethers detached and the descent stage flew away to crash land somewhere else on the Martian surface.
Exploring the Red Planet
Curiosity wasn’t on Mars long before it started making astonishing discoveries. A couple of months after it landed, the rover came across a unique outcrop made up of small stones which indicated that the area had once been a gravel stream bed — one of the first hints that there may have been surface water on Mars at some point in its history.
It took the little rover nearly a year to travel one mile across the Martian landscape, reaching that milestone in 2013. My 2014, it had reached Mount Sharp, traveling more than 4.3 miles to get there. Using its drill, Curiosity was expected to learn more about the planet’s history, sending all that data back to earth.
Between 2014 and 2016, the rover continued up the face of the mountain, taking samples and analyzing data for the Mars Science Laboratory team back home.
In 2018, a massive dust storm enveloped the entire planet. This storm resulted in the final failure of Opportunity, the rover that had been on the Red Planet since 2004, but Curiosity was able to weather the storm.
Curiosity’s original mission — determining if the planet ever supported life or if it still does — was extended indefinitely so it will continue to explore the surface of Mars and seek out any evidence of life on the red planet.
Today, it is still continuing up Mount Sharp and has been on the surface of Mars for nearly 7 years. Since it landed, it’s traveled more than 12.46 miles.
One of the most exciting discoveries that Curiosity has made this year isn’t on the surface of Mars at all — it’s in the sky above the red planet.
On Earth, noctilucent, or ‘night-shining,’ clouds form in the upper reaches of the atmosphere when water collects around fine dust particles from meteors. Curiosity has observed some of these same cloud formations on Mars.
Noctilucent clouds need water to form because of the delicate ice crystals in their structure. This seems to suggest that there is more water in Mars’ thin atmosphere than previously thought.
What’s Next for Curiosity?
The little Curiosity rover will continue to explore Mount Sharp and beyond as long as it has the ability to do so.
The new Mars 2020 rover will be landing north and west of where Curiosity landed all those years ago, in Jezero Crater, so the two rovers aren’t likely to cross paths as they make their way across the Martian landscape.
We’ll likely keep seeing new discoveries from the Curiosity rover as long as its wheels can carry it across the red planet.