One of the first photos it sent home showed a self-portrait of its shadow. The dark gray specter of machinery against a lighter grainy backdrop showed up minutes after the news of its arrival, as if to say “I’m here!”
With its cameras as our eyes, it opened our minds to un-roved territory. If you’re a NASA engineer, you might even call it “she.”
Curiosity, NASA’s most sophisticated and complex Mars rover, touched down on the Red Planet on the morning of August 6, 2012 (August 5 if you’re in Pacific Daylight Time). The $2.5 billion mission set out to explore Gale Crater, which was thought to have once hosted flowing water, and find out if that environment was once habitable.
Spoiler alert: It was.
But that’s not all the rover found while traveling 1.6 kilometers across Mars’ barren surface during its 12 months on the planet. Curiosity has collected 190 gigabits of data and sent back more than 36,700 full images and 35,000 thumbnail images, NASA said. The rover has also fired more than 75,000 laser shots to help scientists analyze the composition of material, and collected samples from two rocks.
NASA scientists joke that the “warranty” on Curiosity is two years, since that was the rover’s design specification, said Ashwin Vasavada, deputy project scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory Mission. But other robotic vehicles have far outlasted their projected lifetimes. NASA landed twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity on Mars in 2004, and Opportunity is still chugging along. (Spirit stopped communicating in 2010).
Now, Curiosity is on its way to Mount Sharp, a three-mile-high structure made of layers that, scientists believe, recorded Mars’ geological history.
“It’s a lot of work and a lot of people involved, but it’s wonderful in the sense that it’s really capable scientifically,” Vasavada said of the rover. “We’re always amazed at how much we can do through this robot.”
To mark the anniversary of its first year on Mars, Curiosity played “Happy Birthday” to itself Monday night, using an on-board instrument to beep out the tune. No word on whether anyone was listening.
Here are five fascinating milestones from Curiosity’s first 12 months:
1. OMG, it actually landed. #mindblown. How do you land a two-ton, car-sized rover on another planet? Engineers thought about it a lot, and came up with a complex plan requiring a sky crane and the world’s largest supersonic parachute. The acrobatic maneuvers required to get it safely to the ground were dubbed the “seven minutes of terror,” as featured in a NASA video simulation depicting just how many things had to go right to get the rover on the ground in one piece.
Adam Steltzner, lead engineer overseeing the rover’s arrival, told reporters a few days before the big night, “I promise you it is the least crazy of the methods you could use to get a rover the size of Curiosity on Mars.”
For the social media generation, this was our moon landing.
The Internet went wild over a rover flight director who showed up for work on landing night with a mohawk, got hailed as “Mohawk Guy,” and later received a shout-out from President Barack Obama. Curiosity itself has a verified Twitter account (with 1.3 million followers), and tweeted that night, “I’m safely on the surface of Mars. GALE CRATER I AM IN YOU!!! #MSL.”