NASA's Curiosity rover celebrated its first Martian year with a selfie. The SUV-sized robot celebrated one Earth year on Mars and has already accomplished the mission's main goal of determining whether Mars ever had an environment that could support microbial life.
Curiosity landed on the Red Planet in August 2012 and immediately set to work inside an ancient riverbed. Nearby, at an area called Yellowknife Bay, the mission determined that the Martian Gale Crater was once habitable for simple life forms.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory explained in a release on Monday, "The answer, a historic 'yes,' came from two mudstone slabs that the rover sampled with its drill." Analysis showed that the region once held a lakebed with mild water and the essential elemental ingredients for life.
Since then, the Mars Curiosity rover also assessed natural radiation levels during the flight to the Red Planet and on the Martian surface. Analysis of these readings will help design the protection needed for human missions to Mars in the future. The robot also took measurements of heavy-versus-light variants of elements in the alien atmosphere.
The rover also used its onboard tools to determine the age of a rock on Mars, something NASA was unable to do on previous missions. Curiosity's tools were used to find out how long the rock was exposed to harmful radiation. The analysis helped scientists learn when water flowed and assess degradation rates of organic compounds on Mars.
Since it landed on the Martian surface, the Curiosity rover has spent its first Martian year traveling 4.9 miles. Wheel damage prompted a slow-down in driving in late 2013 and the mission team has been forced to adjust routes and driving methods to reduce the rate of damage to the vehicle's wheels.
Curiosity is on its way to Mount Sharp, a huge rock formation in the middle of the Gale Crater that scientists hope will show visible geological layering and give them answers about ancient environments. Before the rover landed, scientists believed they would need to reach Mount Sharp to meet the mission's goal. However, they found an answer closer to the landing site than expected.
So far, the Curiosity rover's findings have raised the bar for the work ahead when the SUV-sized robot does reach Mount Sharp. Once there, the mission team will search for evidence of habitability. They will also look for clues about how the environments of Mars evolved and what conditions favored preservation of the clues.
While it still has a long way to go to reach its ultimate goal of Mount Sharp, the Mars Curiosity rover took time to celebrate its first Martian year with a selfie.
[Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS]