Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering in the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan

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Curiosity’s one year anniversary

Posted: August 5, 2013

Curiosity’s one year anniversary

By Bill Clayton

One year ago – on August 6, 2012 – the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) began the most complex entry, descent and landing (EDL) that NASA had ever attempted. Previous rovers Opportunity and Sojourner were small enough for NASA to enclose in airbags and slam into the Martian surface.  But Curiosity, weighing in at nearly a ton, was far too heavy. Engineers opted for an EDL in which a parachute and rockets slowed its descent above Gale Crater, and then a hovering sky crane lowered Curiosity to the Marian surface with a 25-foot tether.

The landing thrilled space enthusiasts around the world. It was particularly pulse-pounding for AOSS Professors Sushil Atreya and Nilton Renno, both intimately involved with the Curiosity mission.

“Curiosity is the most complex, most sophisticated piece of engineering ever to land and operate on another planetary surface,” Atreya said. “Science-wise, the rover has performed fabulously – it’s been flawless! Outside of the science, there have been some minor hiccups.  The only major technical glitch was a temporary failure of one of two rover computers that set the operations back somewhat in February.  Following a swap with its redundant, back-up computer, Curiosity resumed full operations, and the former primary computer, which is fully operational now, is used as back-up.”

The fabulous science that Atreya mentioned has depended on coordinated sets of observations by the rover’s ten investigations, including Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM), a high-precision chemical laboratory that can be rightly viewed as a mission by itself, within the MSL mission: to explore the Gale Crater landing site and the lower layers of Mount Sharp, with particular attention given to the Yellowknife Bay region in the elliptical area around the landing site. Atreya is a co-investigator on the SAM team. Renno, a co-investigator on the MSL’s Rover Environmental Monitoring System, pointed out that the main goal of investigating that layered terrain was to “search for evidence of environments that could have been habitable in the past.”

Currently, the rover is trekking toward Mt. Sharp at the center of the crater. Atreya said that the exploration of lower layers of Mt. Sharp “is expected to provide valuable insight into the time history of geochemical and climate changes on Mars as these sedimentary layers were laid down over time, something we couldn’t do effectively at Yellowknife Bay.”

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