This rover is part of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission and it is the most capable and largest rover ever sent to Mars. Curiosity was launched on November 26, 2011, to explore and find out if there are any signs of life, like microbes, on the planet. The rover landed on Mars on August 5, 2012.

The tools of Curiosity have found mineral and chemical evidence of past habitable conditions early in its mission. Curiosity was designed to survey the Gale crater on Mars and acquire soil, rock, and gas samples for onboard analysis. The rover has an advanced kit of ten scientific tools, including a laser to vaporize and examine small pinpoint spots of rocks at a distance, a drill to collect powdered rock samples, and high-definition cameras, among other things.

A Possibility for Life to Flourish

The right chemistry to support living microbes in ancient Mars has been found by the Curiosity rover, including oxygen, carbon, phosphorus, nitrogen, and sulfur—all these are key components necessary for life. These elements were found from the powder sample drilled from the mudstone (Sheepbed) in Yellowknife Bay. It also revealed a lower content of salt and clay minerals, suggesting that fresh, possibly drinkable, water once flowed there—no plumbing services yet (just kidding).

Presence of Active Methane in the Atmosphere

The discovery of methane in Mar’s atmosphere is exciting because it can be produced by living organisms or by chemical reactions between rock and water, for that matter. Curiosity’s Tunable Laser Spectrometer within the SAM instrument observed a ten-fold increase in methane over the period of two months. It also detected varying background levels of the planet’s atmospheric level.

Evidence of Liquid Water in the Past

Smooth pebbles with a degree of roundness that likely rolled downstream for at least a few miles in a river that was hip-deep were among the things that Curiosity found. The team found over 1,000 vertical feet of rock when the rover reached Mount Sharp, and the rocks were formed originally as mud at the bottom of shallow lakes. In Gale crater, lakes and rivers persisted perhaps 1 million years ago or more.

Mars Rocks with Organic Carbon

After a long search, organic molecules were found from the drilled samples at Mount Sharp and the surrounding plains. The organic molecules are the building blocks of life, but the findings do not prove that life once existed on Mars. However, the raw ingredients found on the planet existed for life to get started at one time. The ancient organic materials can be preserved for us to study today—credit to NASA and Curiosity.

Mars’ Past with More Water and Thicker Atmosphere

Heavier forms (isotopes) of carbon, argon, and hydrogen have been found enriched in Mars’ atmosphere by Curiosity’s SAM instruments. These measurements indicate that much of the atmosphere and inventory of water on the planet was lost. The MAVEN orbiter is currently observing the process which occurred through the top of the atmosphere.

High Radiation in the Planet Pose Risks to Humans

Curiosity experienced a high degree of radiation during its trip to Mars, which would exceed NASA’s limit for astronauts if left unshielded. The RAD, or Radiation Assessment Detector on the rover found two forms of radiation that could potentially pose health risks to humans in Mars. Particles caused by supernova explosions and other high-energy events outside the solar system cause galactic rays or GCRs. Also, coronal mass ejections from the sun with their associated solar flares would result in Solar Energetic Particles or SEPs.

All the data collected by the Curiosity rover will be used to design safer future missions in space for human explorers.

Photo Sources:
Cover – NASA,
Photo #1 –  YouTube / Newsthink,
Photo #2 – NASA / JPL-Caltech,
Photo #3 –  NASA, NASA/JPL-Caltech via Space