Curiosity’s Five Years of Mars Exploration

Five years ago the Curiosity Mars Rover landed on the surface of the red planet. Curiosity’s mission is to determine Mars’ habitability by examining the planet’s climate and geology. It was set to explore the 96 mile-wide Gale Crater and study its structure, chemical composition, how it came to be, and how its history impacted its habitability.
Curiosity Self-Portrait at Martian Sand Dune

So far, Curiosity has traveled 10.89 miles (17.53 kilometers) and it’s still on the go. The rover has drilled 15 times taking rock samples which are then examined. Many instruments inside Curiosity analyzed each sample finding out the minerals within.

Chemical Compositions

During a drill at John Klein rock, Curiosity’s Sample Analisis at Mars (SAM) instrument analyzed a sample which showed the presence of water, carbon dioxide, oxygen, sulfur dioxide (the oxidized form) and hydrogen sulfide (the reduced form) upon heating it to 1535 degrees Fahrenheit and analyzing the gases the sample released.
Drill samples findings of the 'John Klein' Rock, Mars' Curiosity Rover

Other analysis performed my Curiosity’s instruments like the Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS) and the Quadruple Mass Spectrometer (QMS) lead to results indicating that suitable aqueous conditions may have been possible in the distant past, making the John Klein area a potentially habitable environment in the past.

Along its way, the Curiosity Rover has taken hundreds of impressive pictures of Mars’ landscape.

Mars; Curiosity Rover, 'Bagnold Dunes' Edging Mount Sharp

The ‘Bagnold Dunes’ edging Mount Sharp. The dark band in the lower portion of this Martian scene is part of the dune’s field lining the northwestern edge of Mount Sharp, inside Gale Crater. The view combines multiple images taken on Sep. 25, 2017.

Water In Mars’ Past

A couple of the pictures have also shown traces of rocks shaped or formed by water in the past.

Mars' Curiosity Rover, rock shaped by water in the past

The land characteristics are consistent with a sedimentary mixture, or a rock that was formed by the deposition of water and is composed of many smaller rounded rocks cemented together. Water transport is the only process capable of producing the rounded shape of rocks of this size.

 

Strata at Base of Mount Sharp

The strata in the foreground dip towards the base of Mount Sharp, indicating a flow of water toward a basin that existed before the larger bulk of the mountain formed.

These many findings have led scientists to determine Gale Crater’s history.

Curiosity’s Climb

Although these findings explain a lot about the area, there’s still a world to explore. Curiosity is still traveling through the crater’s rocks and sand dunes.  As of September 13, 2017, Curiosity next step stated by climbing toward the top of the Vera Rubin Ridge. This destination had been set even before the rover landed on 2012. The rock formations especially of sedimentary rocks, make it a promising exploration site. The ascension route has been mapped, never the less, the steep cliffs are always a concern to Curiosity’s team of scientists.

Mars' Curiosiyu. View Toward 'Vera Rubin Ridge' on Mount Sharp, Mars (Labeled)

On July 11, 2017, Curiosity Rover took a compilation of photographs showing four geological layers to be examined by the mission and higher reaches of Mount Sharp, planned study area.

 

Mars' Curiosity at Vera Rubin Ridge

“Vera Rubin Ridge” rises near the rover nearly five years later in this panorama from Curiosity’s Mastcam. The scene combines 23 images taken with the Mastcam’s right-eye camera, on June 22, 2017. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The climb will take Curiosity 213 feet (65 meters) or 20 stories up and on a road trip of more than a third of a mile (570 meters). The rover’s  climb will allow scientist to study the sedimentary layers up close. Along the way, Curiosity will pause at pre-chosen places where Curiosity’s team can perform more extensive studies and will adjust if necessary.

 

Resources for Educators:

  1. Interactive videos about Curiosity Rover
  2. Curiosity Image Galery
  3. Learn all about the Curiosity Rover
  4. https://www.nasa.gov/feature/jpl/five-years-ago-and-154-million-miles-away-touchdown
  5. https://mars.nasa.gov/