It was a crazy idea on the face of it — sending a $ 2.5 billion robot to another planet with a complex rocket sled contraption to get it safely to the surface. It worked, though, and Curiosity began its exploration of the red planet six years ago. As the rover begins its seventh year on Mars, let’s look at how it got there and where it’s going.
Curiosity is simply the payload of a mission known as the Mars Science Laboratory, which had been in the planning phase all the way back in 2004. This spacecraft contained the rover and its landing apparatus, which was responsible for the most accurate landing martian landing of any known object. MSL launched from Earth on November 26, 2011, and the landing took place on August 6, 2012.
Most of the discoveries we’ve made about Mars since that 2012 landing are thanks to Curiosity. Early on in the mission, NASA reported that Curiosity had gathered compelling evidence of an ancient stream bed — a place where water flowed on the currently dry planet. It would go on to gather even more evidence of an ancient, watery Mars. This caused scientists to reassess their ideas about the planet’s evolution. There may even be a lot of water locked up in the Martian soil today.
Curiosity also discovered important substances on Mars that indicate it could have supported life in the past. After drilling into rocks in Gale Crater, the rover reported the presence of water, carbon dioxide, oxygen, sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide. That was all before Curiosity reached its true target on Mars — Mount Sharp. It started climbing the slopes in 2014, discovering high levels of organic molecules, which is more evidence for past life on the planet.
Later in the mission, Curiosity delivered evidence that water does still occasionally flow on the surface of Mars, and there was more evidence of an ancient lake in Gale Crater. The rover’s wheels have taken a beating over the years, but it’s still trudging higher up Mount Sharp. More recently, Curiosity delivered even more data on the possibility of life in ancient Martian lakes and confirmation of complex organic molecules.
As Curiosity continued up Mount Sharp, it set a record for the longest distance driven on another planet. The rover has been so successful, NASA is using Curiosity as a base for the upcoming Mars 2020 rover. NASA planned for Curiosity to conduct a two-year study of the planet at least, but the rover worked so well that its mission has been extended indefinitely. As long as Curiosity can do science, it’ll get done.
Now read: NASA’s 2020 Mars Rover Will Have 23 Cameras, SpaceX announces plans to launch Mars mission in 2018, and NASA May Have Accidentally Destroyed Evidence of Organics on Mars 40 Years Ago