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NASA Ames Celebrates Achievements, Marks Curiosity's First Anniversary on Mars
August 6, 2013



NASA's Curiosity rover today marked one year on Mars after its successful landing on Aug. 5, 2012, PDT (Aug. 6, 2012, EDT), and has already achieved its main science goal of revealing ancient Mars could have supported life. The mobile laboratory also is guiding designs for future planetary missions. But it wouldn't have successfully landed on the Martian surface if it hadn't been for the ingenuity of thermal protection – or heat shield - engineers a NASA's Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, Calif.

"Everyone on the team at Ames who supported the Mars Science Laboratory's heat shield connected emotionally that night over the fact that we helped enable humanity to touch another planet, and that we all made it happen together as a team," said Edward Martinez, Mars Science Laboratory Entry Descent and Landing Instrumentation (MEDLI) Thermal Plug Subsystem Manager at Ames. "The agency continues to leverage our technical experience from MEDLI by using much of our team to instrument the heat shield on the first Orion exploration flight test with an expanded set of instruments for future robotic and manned exploration of the solar system."

After inspiring millions of people worldwide with its successful landing in a crater on the Red Planet, Curiosity has provided more than 190 gigabits of data; returned more than 36,700 full images and 35,000 thumbnail images; fired more than 75,000 laser shots to investigate the composition of targets; collected and analyzed sample material from two rocks; and driven more than one mile (1.6 kilometers).

"Successes of our Curiosity -- that dramatic touchdown a year ago and the science findings since then -- advance us toward further exploration, including sending humans to an asteroid and Mars," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Wheel tracks now, will lead to boot prints later." 

Curiosity team members at Ames and across the country observed the rover anniversary, shared remembrances about the dramatic landing night and the overall mission, and discussed how its activities and other robotic projects help prepare for a human mission to Mars and an asteroid.

"Ames employees perform some of the best work in the agency. We made multiple contributions to the success of the Mars Science Laboratory mission, making Curiosity the science and technology marvel it is," said Ames Center Director S. Pete Worden. "As we celebrate the first anniversary of Curiosity's landing on Mars, I'm proud of the continued hard work and dedication of the Ames community in support of this exciting mission."

Curiosity, which is the size of a car, traveled 764 yards in the past four weeks, since leaving a group of science targets where it worked for more than six months. The rover is making its way to the base of Mount Sharp, where it will investigate lower layers of a mountain that rises three miles from the floor of the crater. 

In the past year, Curiosity used its CheMin instrument – designed and developed at Ames – to obtain mineralogical results from rock and soil, which are greatly improving our knowledge of the early history on the Red Planet. CheMin identifies the minerals in samples of powdered rock or soil that Curiosity's robotic arm delivers to an input funnel.

“CheMin identified water-containing clay minerals in drilled sediments at a location called Yellowknife Bay in Gale crater," said David Blake, a NASA exobiologist at Ames and principal investigator for the CheMin instrument. "It was this discovery that led Mars Science Laboratory scientists to announce that Curiosity had found the first habitable environment on Mars."

The identification of minerals in rocks and soil is crucial for the mission's goal to assess past environmental conditions. Each mineral records the conditions under which it formed. The chemical composition of a rock provides only ambiguous mineralogical information, as in the textbook example of the minerals diamond and graphite, which have the same chemical composition, but strikingly different structures and properties.

CheMin uses X-ray diffraction, the standard practice for geologists on Earth using much larger laboratory instruments. This method provides more accurate identifications of minerals than any method previously used on Mars. X-ray diffraction reads minerals' internal structure by recording how their crystals distinctively interact with X-rays. Innovations fromAmes led to an X-ray diffraction instrument compact enough to fit inside the rover.

These NASA technological advances have resulted in other applications on Earth, including compact and portable X-ray diffraction equipment for oil and gas exploration, analysis of archaeological objects and screening of counterfeit pharmaceuticals, among other uses.

NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft and its unprecedented sky crane landing system placed Curiosity on Mars near the base of Mount Sharp. The mountain has exposed geological layers, including ones identified by Mars orbiters as originating in a wet environment. The rover landed about one mile from the center of that carefully chosen, 12-mile-long target area. 

Once landed, two software packages developed by Ames in collaboration with engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., and Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, Calif., helped scientists plan observations and communicate their intent to the rover operators. These tools include the Mars Science Laboratory InterfaCE (MSLICE), which plans the actions of the Mars rover and maximize scientific research, and “Antares,” a visualization and simulation software that plans and generates command sequences for the Curiosity rover science cameras. This includes "Mastcam," the mast-mounted remote sensing cameras, the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) microscope mounted at the end of the rover's Robotic Arm, and the MARs Descent Imager (MARDI), a chassis-mounted descent imager.

"With MSLICE and Antares, we tried to push the state of the art in science operations planning and sequence generation," said Laurence Edwards, computer scientist at Ames and co-investigator on the Curiosity's Mastcam/MAHLI/MARDI instruments team. "Rover operations on Mars will never be as simple as joy-sticking a radio controlled model car, but our goal was to provide accessible visual environments that captured rover engineering and instrument constraints and knowledge." 

Scientists decided first to investigate closer outcrops where the mission quickly found signs of vigorous ancient stream flow. These were the first streambed pebble deposits ever examined up close on Mars. 

Within the first eight months of the 23-month primary mission, evidence of a past environment, well suited to support microbial life came from analysis of the first sample material ever collected by drilling into a rock on Mars. 

Clues to this habitable environment came from data returned by the rover's CheMin and Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instruments. The SAM instrument has three laboratory tools for analyzing gases released from rocks and soil samples as well as gas from the Martian atmosphere. The data indicated the Yellowknife Bay area was the end of an ancient river system, or an intermittently wet lake bed, that could have provided chemical energy and other favorable conditions for microbes. The rock is made up of a fine grain mudstone containing clay minerals, sulfate minerals and other chemicals. This ancient wet environment, unlike some others on Mars, was not harshly oxidizing, acidic, or extremely salty.

"The subsurface material is quite interesting," said Chris McKay, senior research scientist at Ames and co-investigator of Curiosity's instruments SAM and Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) - a rock-zapping laser instrument that observes the resulting flash through a telescope to identify the chemical elements in the target. "If there was ever biology on Mars, its remains would be in places like this - perhaps deeper down, shielded from damaging cosmic radiation."

The mission measured natural radiation levels on the trip to Mars and is monitoring radiation and weather on the surface of Mars, which will be helpful for designing future human missions to the planet. The Curiosity mission also found evidence Mars lost most of its original atmosphere through processes that occurred at the top of the atmosphere. NASA's next mission to Mars, called Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN), is being prepared for launch in November to study those processes in the upper atmosphere. 

"We now know Mars offered favorable conditions for microbial life billions of years ago," said the mission's project scientist, John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "It has been gratifying to succeed, but that has also whetted our appetites to learn more. We hope those enticing layers at Mount Sharp will preserve a broad diversity of other environmental conditions that could have affected habitability." 

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, manages the Curiosity mission and built the rover for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. 

To follow the conversation online about Curiosity's first year on Mars, use hashtag #1YearOnMars or follow @NASA and @MarsCuriosity on Twitter. 

Ames also contributed to this exciting mission in a variety of ways, including:

-   Arc Jet testing: The MSL heat shield was tested at Ames’ Arc Jet Complex, which reproduces heating and pressure conditions similar to those experienced by spacecraft during atmospheric re-entry.

-   Parachute testing: Wind tunnel engineers conducted a full-scale MSL parachute deployment, small-scale verification tests and supersonic tests to study the interaction between the MSL capsule and parachute during atmospheric entry.

-   PICA: Researchers invented the unique thermal protection system consisting of tiles made of Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator (PICA) that the MSL spacecraft used to safely reach the surface of the Red Planet.

-   MEDLI: The Mars Science Laboratory Entry, Descent and Landing Instrument (MEDLI) contains multiple sophisticated temperature sensors to measure atmospheric conditions and performance of the capsule's heat shield.

In addition to CheMin, SAM and ChemCam, Ames also will support the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) instrument, which will provide daily weather reports from the Red Planet using a suite of meteorological instruments science instruments on Curiosity.

To watch a movie made with Hazard-Avoidance Camera images from Curiosity's first year, titled "Twelve Months in Two Minutes," visit: 


For more information about the mission, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/msl and http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl 

For information about Ames' contributions to the mission, visit:


For more information about commercial applications of the CheMin technology, visit:

http://go.nasa.gov/T1G0YG and http://blogs.getty.edu/iris/mars-rover-technology-helps-unlock-art-myste...

Rachel Hoover, NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. 650-604-4789, rachel.hoover@nasa.gov

Guy Webster, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. 818-354-6278, guy.webster@jpl.nasa.gov 


Self-portrait of NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on Mars
This self-portrait of NASA's Mars rover Curiosity combines 66 exposures taken by the rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) during the 177th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars (Feb. 3, 2013).
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Page Last Updated: August 15th, 2013
Page Editor: Rachel Hoover