NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has already achieved its initial mission, proving that the Red Planet could have once sustained life, but one scientist says its greatest accomplishments could be in the year ahead.
"It is all part of the evolution of our understanding of Mars," Lisa May, NASA's lead program executive for Mars, told Computerworld. "We are going chapter by chapter of your favorite mystery novel, making progress to understand, what was it like, was anything there and where did the water go? With Curiosity ... we're peeling away the layers of a very complex story of a planet that could have been a sibling, if not a twin to Earth, at some point."
NASA's super rover, Curiosity, hits its second anniversary working on the Red Planet and has a series of scientific accomplishments under its belt. (Image: NASA)
Curiosity hit a major milestone this week. The nuclear-powered, SUV-sized super rover landed on the surface of Mars on Aug. 5, 2012 PDT ( Aug. 6, 2012, EDT).
For two years, the robotic rover has worked on Mars, searching for signs that the planet ever held life, even in microbial form. It also signifies that Curiosity had made it through its initial mission, which lasted the length of one Martian year, or about 687 days.
That doesn't mean that scientists are finished with Curiosity. May said NASA will work with the rover as long as it's still functioning.
"Curiosity has already met its mission success criteria, but there's always the intention of continuing as long as our spacecraft lets us," May said. "We have spent $2.5 billion to send this spacecraft to Mars, and we'll use it to learn and explore as long as we can."
After a journey of more than eight months and traveling a distance of 350 million miles, Curiosity used a supersonic parachute, a tether and rockets to safely alight on Mars. NASA scientists called the time from when the spacecraft entered the Martian atmosphere to when it touched down on the planet's surface, " seven minutes of terror" because a 14-minute communication delay between a signal from Mars reaching the Earth meant they had no idea what was happening during that time.
Once it was safely on the ground, scientists and engineers quickly set Curiosity to work, and in the past two years, the rover has made significant progress working on Mars.
Here are the top five scientific discoveries Curiosity has made so far:
1.Ancient Mars could have held life: Thanks to Curiosity, scientists found that ancient Mars likely had the right chemistry to support living microbes, according to NASA. By drilling into Martian rocks, the rover discovered what are believed to be the key ingredients for life — carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur.
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