NASA’s Curiosity rover successfully landed in Gale Crater on Mars on August 5, 2012, to search for evidence that the Red Planet could once have supported Earth-like microbial life.

Since landing on Mars in August 2012, Curiosity has been exploring Mt. Sharp in Gale Crater. Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech.

Curiosity was launched aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on November 26, 2011.

The rover landed on Mars on August 5, 2012 at 10:32 p.m. PDT (1:32 a.m. EDT on August 6) using a series of complicated landing maneuvers never before attempted.

The specialized landing sequence, which employed a giant parachute, a jet-controlled descent vehicle and a bungee-like apparatus called a sky crane, was devised because tested landing techniques used during previous rover missions could not safely accommodate the much larger and heavier rover.

Since the landing, Curiosity has driven nearly 29 km (18 miles) and ascended 625 (2,050 feet) as it explores Gale Crater and the foothills of Mount Sharp within it.

The rover has acquired 494,540 images, returned 3,102 gigabytes of data to Earth, and yielded 883 science papers.

It has analyzed 41 rock and soil samples, relying on a suite of science instruments to learn what they reveal about Earth’s rocky sibling.

And it’s pushed a team of Curiosity engineers to devise ways to minimize wear and tear and keep the rover rolling.

In fact, Curiosity’s mission was recently extended for another three years, allowing it to continue among NASA’s fleet of important astrobiological missions.

“As soon as you land on Mars, everything you do is based on the fact that there’s no one around to repair it for 100 million miles,” said Curiosity’s acting project manager Andy Mishkin, a researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“It’s all about making intelligent use of what’s already on your rover.”

Curiosity has studied the Red Planet’s skies, capturing images of shining clouds and drifting moons.

The rover’s radiation sensor lets scientists measure the amount of high-energy radiation future astronauts would be exposed to on the Martian surface, helping NASA figure out how to keep them safe.

But most important, Curiosity has determined that liquid water as well as the chemical building blocks and nutrients needed for supporting life were present for at least tens of millions of years in Gale Crater.

The crater once held a lake, the size of which waxed and waned over time. Each layer higher up on Mount Sharp serves as a record of a more recent era of Mars’ environment.

Now, the rover is driving through a canyon that marks the transition to a new region, one thought to have formed as water was drying out, leaving behind salty minerals called sulfates.

“We’re seeing evidence of dramatic changes in the ancient Martian climate,” said Curiosity’s project scientist Dr. Ashwin Vasavada, also from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“The question now is whether the habitable conditions that Curiosity has found up to now persisted through these changes.”

“Did they disappear, never to return, or did they come and go over millions of years?”

Back in 2015, the rover captured a postcard image of distant buttes.

A mere speck within that image is a Curiosity-size boulder nicknamed Ilha Novo Destino — and, nearly seven years later, the rover trundled by it last month on the way to the sulfate-bearing region.

The Curiosity team plans to spend the next few years exploring the sulfate-rich area.

Within it, they have targets in mind like the Gediz Vallis channel, which may have formed during a flood late in Mount Sharp’s history, and large cemented fractures that show the effects of groundwater higher up the mountain.

“Our team is continuing to budget how much energy the rover uses each day, and has figured out which activities can be done in parallel to optimize the energy available to the rover,” Mishkin said.

“Curiosity is definitely doing more multitasking where it’s safe to do so.”

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This article is based on text provided by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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