What has the Mars Curiosity rover actually achieved in its first year on the Red Planet?

It has been roaming the Martian surface for exactly a year. So what have we learnt from its incredible journey?

Science Editor

Of all the space probes and landers that have been sent to Mars over the past four decades, none has matched up to the extraordinary sophistication – and size – of the Curiosity rover, a six-wheeled robotic vehicle and mobile laboratory the size of a large family car.

Click HERE to view graphic

It will be a year and a day on Wednesday since Curiosity made its remarkable and unprecedented descent into the Gale Crater of the Red Planet. Because of its size and weight – ten times as massive as previous rovers – landing with conventional parachutes and airbags posed a problem.

So, scientists came up with radical idea of hoisting Curiosity down gently on nylon tethers from a retro-rocket propelled “sky-crane” hovering overhead. Nothing like it had been attempted before and yet the entire “seven minutes of terror”, which involved braking from a speed 13,200mph at the spacecraft entered the Martian atmosphere, went without a hitch.

As John Holdren, senior science adviser to President Obama, remarked at the time: “The successful landing of Curiosity marks what is really an unprecedented technological tour de force.”

Yet the expectations of what Curiosity could achieve were even higher, according to Pete Theisinger, the project manager. “We have the possibility of just monumental science accomplishments,” he said at the start of the two-year mission.

Some of those expectations have already been met. For the past 12 months Curiosity has collected 190 gigabits of data, returned more than 36,700 full-sized images of Mars to Earth, fired more than 75,000 laser shots to analyse the Martian air and soil, and provided a detailed chemical signature of two samples of rock.

Half way through its mission, Curiosity became the first rover to drill into Martian rock and lived up to its name by satisfying one of the biggest mysteries of Mars – could the planet ever have supported life? The answer, according to the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa), is an unequivocal “yes”.

Ancient Mars would have had the right chemistry to support life. Curiosity found carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulphur – the key organic elements necessary for life on Earth – and, most crucially of all, there was once abundant running water on the surface of the Red Planet, said John Grotzinger, the project scientist.

“We have found a habitable environment that is so benign and supportive of life that probably if this water was around and you had been on the planet, you’d have been able to drink it,” Dr Grotzinger said.

Barely two months after it landed, at the end of last September, Curiosity found the first direct evidence that Mars once had a network of fast-moving streams. Smooth and rounded rocks, just like the water-eroded pebbles in a fast-moving terrestrial stream, were clearly visible in layers of exposed bedrock very near to the landing site.

Click HERE to view five things Curiosity has discovered

William Dietrich of the University of California, Berkeley, one of the science co-investigators on the project, said at the time that the streams could have existed for thousands and possibly millions of years between 3.5 billion and 4 billion years ago, a period when life on Earth was just beginning to emerge.

“Plenty of [scientific] papers have been written about channels on Mars with many different hypotheses about the flows in them. This is the first time we’re actually seeing water-transported gravel on Mars,” Dr Dietrich said.

Armed with 10 scientific instruments and 17 cameras, Curiosity is a sophisticated mobile laboratory controlled by computers that can be re-programmed from Earth. All its movements are planned in advance by a science team at mission control in Pasadena, some of whom even live by Martian sunrise and sunset rather than the 24-hour terrestrial clock.

An image taken by Curiosity last month An image taken by Curiosity last month  


The rover has over the past four weeks travelled 764 yards (699 metres) since it began to move away from a group of “science targets” where it had worked for the previous six months to hone its analytical skills.

It has now begun the arduous 1.6km journey to its main target, the base of Mount Sharp, a Martian mountain with exposed geological layers that may contain the all-important chemical signatures of previous life-forms laid down in sedimentary rock formations.

“We now know that Mars offered favourable conditions for microbial life billions of years ago,” said Dr Grotzinger, a research scientist at 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,” he said.

It could take anywhere between six months and a year for Curiosity to finally reach Mount Sharp, depending on the stops it makes on the way to investigate any features of interest. But there is hope that this highly sophisticated box of scientific tricks may be able to answer the biggest question of all: was there ever life on Mars?

Curiosity: A mission on Mars

Curiosity landed on Mars using a unique “sky crane” that hovered overhead using a set of eight retro-rockets while lowering the rover down to the surface on nylon tethers. As soft landings go, this one was picture perfect.

The landing of the rover was probably the most technically difficult and breathtakingly ambitious part of the entire $2.5bn (£1.67bn) project.

It took seven minutes from the point at which the space probe carrying the rover entered the Martian atmosphere to the moment that the rover’s six wheels touched down on the surface of the Red Planet.

During that time the craft had to be slowed down from its entry speed of 13,200mph. This was achieved using a number of deceleration techniques, from S-shaped manoeuvres to take advantage of the friction generated by the probe’s heat-shield, to parachutes and retro-rockets.

In the end, it worked perfectly and the plutonium-powered Curiosity rover was lowered down to the surface in the most gentle of soft landings.

One Nasa scientist said that the entire landing was like trying to control and dissipate the energy of 25 high-speed trains at full throttle.

Steve Connor

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Jennifer Saunders stars as Miss Windsor, Dennis's hysterical French teacher
filmJennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress
Life and Style
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Jimmy Mubenga died after being restrained on an aircraft by G4S escorts
voicesJonathan Cox: Tragedy of Jimmy Mubenga highlights lack of dignity shown to migrants
Life and Style
Sebastian Siemiatkowski is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Klarna, which provides a simple way for people to buy things online
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum