Monday, August 5, 2013

The Year of Curiosity


One year ago today, Curiosity Rover, carrying the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), landed on Mars. There were 127 landing parties in the USA and 15 other countries, and thousands of people watched breathlessly until news of the successful landing gave way to raucous celebrations all over the globe!

NASA JPL Mission Control
NASA Television had a record number of viewers. went DOWN. Ustream froze. Live data feeds tanked due to the onslaught of online demand. The world watched. Together. And believe it or not, the fun has just barely begun...!

Neil deGrasse Tyson predicted the risky Entry, Descent, & Landing (EDL) would fail. Many of us writers considered preparing two articles -- one for success and one for a crash. I spent days feeling sick to my stomach at the idea of what would happen to the NASA budget for Mars missions if Curiosity didn't land safely. (Humanity doesn't exactly have a stellar success rate with missions to the red planet!)

MSL Tweet

Everything that could have gone right, went right. Every expected signal arrived. Everyone who worked on this magnificent mission of space exploration can be proud, choked up, relieved and sleepless-for-days jubilant! And millions of us who had followed this mission for years could finally say that our most cutting edge technology now roves on the fourth rock from the sun.

I saw the very first images on a huge screen at the largest landing party on Earth. By the time the EDL was in progress, more than 7,000+ people had congregated at NASA Ames Research Center near Moffett Field in California. The cheer that rose from that crowd when we knew Curiosity had landed safely was utterly EPIC!  The roar upon receiving the first photograph on Martian terrain...? Well, I'm pretty sure people in Las Vegas heard us.

Curiosity Rover Lands on Mars
MSL Curiosity has since drilled rocks, fired lasers at soil target, photographed landslides, ound streambeds, and even photographed the Martian moon Phobos overhead!

From Bradbury to Glenelg,from Rocknest to Point Lake, from Shaler to Cumberland, and on to the base of Mt, Sharp, MSL is making herself at home in Gale Crater, teaching us more about Mars than we ever thought possible: radiation, what was once under water, volcanic vs. sedimentary rocks, determined temperature and humidity, nature of Martian minerals, and most importantly -- what is now almost certainly proof of ancient habitability.

This advanced rover found evidence that geochemical conditions were once suitable for microbial life.  MSL Curiosity detected water, carbon dioxide, oxygen, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, chloromethane, and dichloromethane.What happened to the Martian atmosphere over the last billion years? We know it was there.  And now, thanks to MSL, scientists finally know why Mars changed!

Curiosity, which may last as long as a decade on Mars, may be able to tell us so much more! So stay tuned for good science.  A toast to the first 354 sols!  May there be thousands!

NOTE: The anniversary being celebrated today and tomorrow represent one Earth year. 668 sols of the Martian year (687 equivalent Earth days) would put the Martian Anniversary on July 14, 2014 .