NASA sent a rover called Curiosity to the Red Planet more than four years ago to see if life could exist there. Here is a recap of its journey and discoveries so far.
Length: 9 feet, 10 inches
Weight: 1,982 pounds
August 5, 2012: Touchdown
Curiosity landed on the surface of Mars—no easy feat, since the craft entered the planet’s atmosphere at 13,000 mph. Engineers slowed its descent with a supersonic parachute, deployed a secondary craft, then used a sky crane for a flawless landing inside the huge Gale Crater.
March 12, 2013: Life?
After analyzing clay and minerals from the McLaughlin Crater, scientists concluded they’d found the “strongest evidence yet” of life on Mars.
December 16, 2014: Water?
Perched high on Mount Sharp, Curiosity recorded a 10-fold increase in Mars’s methane levels, an exciting change because living organisms (and chemical reactions involving rock and water) produce methane.
March 27, 2015: Recent Changes
At a site called Garden City, Curiosity discovered a series of different mineral veins, suggesting evidence of liquid movement more recent than previously thought. Lake and streambeds at a lower altitude did not contain the same minerals.
April 4, 2016: View From The Top
Curiosity climbed to the Naukluft Plateau and sent scientists a ghostly, beautiful and previously unseen 360-degree panoramic vista from its mast camera.
June 30, 2016: Beach Day
Upon reaching the Bagnold Dunes, Curiosity sent home images of slopes with water-like ripples, providing further clues about the planet’s history.
What Will We Find Next?
It’s anybody’s guess, but if the new discoveries are as mysterious and wonderful as those of the past six years, scientists say we’re all in for a captivating journey.
“Mars fascinates us because it makes such an intriguing comparison case with Earth, with both strong similarities and enlightening differences,” says Guy Webster, communications specialist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA. “It beckons humans to explore robotically and, soon, in person.”
Well, maybe not that soon. Still, the near future for Mars exploration looks bright, with robotic missions scheduled for 2018 and 2020.
“The 2018 InSight mission will investigate Mars’s deep interior to improve our understanding of the formation and early evolution of rocky planets, including Earth,” explains Webster.
The 2020 Mars rover mission will look for signs of past life on Mars, prepare carefully selected rock-core samples for possible future delivery to Earth, and extract oxygen from Mars’s atmosphere to showcase how technology may pave the way for humans.
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By Cole Louison