Ten years ago, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory celebrated the successful landing of their fourth robot on Mars, the Curiosity rover.
Now old enough to enter the fifth grade, the Curiosity rover set out on its mission in 2012 to determine if the Red Planet might have once supported life.
The robot is about the size of a car and is equipped with scientific instruments used to study the planet’s climate and geology. So how was the mission? And what can the Curiosity rover teach us about the past and potential future of space exploration?
Clear signs of life.
Dr. Ashwin Vasavada is the Curiosity team’s lead scientist and says the mission was a great success.
“[We learned] not only was it habitable at one point in Mars’ history, but it was probably habitable for millions or tens of millions of years,” he said.
While the rover had the ability to detect signs of life, that didn’t necessarily mean Mars itself harbored life. Vasavada said that his initial goal was to find out if life was simply possible there.
“We’ve explored Mars long enough to know there are no dinosaur footprints, no large life forms today,” he said. “So if life ever took hold, it probably never got past some sort of microbial stage.”
a sudden change
So what kind of life was there on Mars? And was there any specific event that made it uninhabitable for life?
Vasavada believes that it is likely to be a combination of events.
“You can see evidence that rivers once ran along the surface, that maybe an ocean even existed at one point. So early Mars, we’re talking about three or four billion years ago, was a place much more like Earth than Mars is today,” he said.
And it seems that the size of the planet may have been the main factor in ending the development of life.
“Ultimately, it’s a planet smaller than Earth, [so] that allowed it to cool down faster. Once it cooled faster, it lost its ability to generate a magnetic field,” he said. “Once the magnetic field stopped, the atmosphere was stripped away by radiation in space. And that led to her inability to, at the time, stay warm and have liquid water.”
From that moment on, the planet became the cold and inhospitable desert that we know today.
A single landing point
Even the site where the Curiosity rover initially landed 10 years ago may have provided new insights for the team working to understand Mars.
The rover landed in an area called Gale Crater. Known as an impact crater, the cavity was formed when a large space rock hit the planet’s surface. Later, it filled with sediment deposited in lakes and formed layers of mud that accumulated over time on the slopes of a mountain.
“What this means is that we could land there and see if that sediment actually got deposited in liquid water environments, like lakes and streams,” Vasavada said. “We could read into the early history of Mars by uplifting these rock layers and determining whether any of those time periods on Mars had these habitable conditions.”
After 10 years, the success of the mission still surprises the scientist.
“We’ve climbed more than 2,000 vertical feet up the mountain, and for the most part, every layer we’ve looked at formed in a humid environment and had conditions that would have been favorable for life.”
This story was adapted for the web by Manuela Lopez Restrepo.