Curiosity was launched from Cape Canaveral on 26th November 2011 and after a 254 day journey, touched down on the surface of Mars on 6th August 2012. Just over two weeks later, it took its first baby steps across Gale Crater, powered by a radioactive plutonium system. Engineers then had to establish the stability of Curiosity’s position before deploying and checking several key features, such as the antenna. Now that it is on the move, the world already has been awed by the magnificent vistas beamed back to Earth from the on-board camera.
The rover, which is roughly the size of a Range Rover, is packed with chemical analysis equipment which it will use to study rock samples collected during its voyage. Curiosity then relays the information it gathers back to scientists on Earth via one of three satellites orbiting the Red Planet. It is currently travelling from Gale Crater to Glenelg, some 400 meters away, where engineers plan to drill into the ground for the first time on the mission. Along the way it is analysing the geology and climate of the planet, and assessing the possibility of further human exploration. However, its most important aim is to calculate whether Mars was ever able to support life; this involves searching for carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulphur – the elements essential for life. An on-board alpha particle x-ray spectrometer can analyse the elemental composition of the ground, including trace elements present. As well as several other spectrometers, the Mars rover also carries radiation detectors and an environmental detector, to measure temperature, humidity and pressure.
Curiosity is only designed to last for roughly two Earth years, or one Martian one, before expiring. NASA has already lined up the InSight mission as Curiosity’s successor, which aims to detect “marsquakes”. It is hoped this 2016 mission will be able to explain Mars’ lack of tectonic plates and why it lost its magnetic field, which used to protect it from the solar wind.
Image by NASA