Curiosity survives freshman year on Mars. What's next?

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity celebrated its first year this week since landing on the Red Planet, and scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have been looking back on the year since its nail-biting arrival with the "seven minutes of terror."

The rover drilled, lasered and imaged its way across 1.08 miles of Martian terrain during that first year, making some ground-breaking discoveries along the way. But now, scientists say, they’re looking forward to the new year -- and the new set of challenges it will bring. Here’s what to expect.

Pedal to the metal. Curiosity’s target destination is Mount Sharp, that 3-mile-high mound in the middle of Gale Crater, whose layers of rock could help scientists read each chapter of Mars' geologic history. But the rover took an extended detour into a spot called Yellowknife Bay not too far from its landing spot. That bet paid off. The team announced in March that they’d discovered what they’d set out to find -- a past habitable environment, with signs of flowing water, low acidity and plenty of life’s building blocks, the Los Angeles Times reported.

"It’s pretty awesome," project scientist John Grotzinger said in a recent interview. "It’s nice to have that in the bag, and all the concerns we might have had about being able to find a target like that are taken care of."

Now that that's out of the way, the scientists plan to book it to Mount Sharp; no more major detours are in the works. The rover will work its way up the mountain, reading each page in Mars’ geologic history as it goes.

Taste the rainbow. The goal, now that they’ve found a habitable environment, will be to find different kinds, Grotzinger says. Once they get to Mount Sharp, there’s a key area -- what he calls "a parfait of three layers" -- spread over hundreds of meters that he thinks will be particularly illuminating: a hematite-rich layer, the clay-rich unit that initially caught their eye and a sulfate layer on top of that.

Were any (or all) of the environments logged in these sediment layers also habitable, as in Yellowknife Bay? If so, were some more or less hospitable to life? Scientists are hankering to get Curiosity to Mount Sharp to taste all these rocky flavors.

"We’re excited to be able to go through and basically document the diversity over which habitable environments might have existed on Mars — different types of habitable environments," Grotzinger said.

The hunt for organic carbon. Carbon isn’t in short supply on the Red Planet. But discovering organic carbon -- the type of carbon in molecules that would be useful to life as we know it (think glucose, or amino acids) -- would be a scientific jackpot. Such compounds, if they ever existed, would probably have been broken up by all the radiation hitting the planet’s surface. Finding them, Grotzinger said, would be "a tall order."

But perhaps some of these organic compounds could potentially have been preserved underneath the surface -- and Curiosity has a drill.

Same bag, new tricks. Curiosity has a whole suite of instruments -- imagers, spectrometers, even a laser-shooting camera -- each with a specific purpose. But what if they could come up with new ways to use their tools?

The scientists did this with the 2004 rover Opportunity, Grotzinger said. They used its alpha particle X-ray spectrometer to measure the abundance of argon in the atmosphere -- something it was not directly designed to do.  But all in all, by the end of Opportunity and its twin Spirit’s 90-day missions, Grotzinger said, "we had done pretty much everything the vehicle could do."

With Curiosity’s far more formidable arsenal of instruments, Grotzinger thinks the Mars Science Laboratory team will be able to teach the rover a few new scientific tricks to try out on Mars.

"It’s such an amazingly capable vehicle," Grotzinger said.

-- Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times


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