Looking Up – Bob Eklund

image_miniAs NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) celebrates four years on the Red Planet, University of Leicester planetary scientist Professor John Bridges recounts the mission’s success and explains what is next for the one-ton nuclear-powered science robot.

The Curiosity rover (with MSL aboard) hit the dusty Martian surface on August 6, 2012, and began its mission of finding evidence about whether ancient Mars offered environmental conditions conducive to microbial life.

By March 2013, NASA reported that MSL had achieved its primary objective after scientists found evidence of oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, sulfur, phosphorous and carbon—all essential chemical elements for supporting living organisms.

Now the mission, which was scheduled to end this year, has recently been given a two-year extension.

Bridges said, “It’s been a great four years—from the excitement of landing we have now had 1,421 Martian days of operations and driven 13.6 km. We have learned an enormous amount about Mars.”

“The old idea of Mars as a simple basaltic planet that experienced a few catastrophic floods has been disproved. We have encountered ancient lakes and a silica-rich crust.

“Our laser—ChemCam—has made over 350,000 shots on Mars and we are busily interpreting the data.”

Bridges added that the Mars Science Lab’s plutonium power source can keep it going for years to come. “For the next few years,” he says, we will gradually climb further up Mount Sharp; at the moment we are in foothills called Murray Buttes.”

As part of the fourth-year celebration, NASA has released a smartphone game, which mars-rover-gamee-screenshotlets users control their own MSL across the rugged terrain of Mars searching for water.

On their mobile devices, players drive a rover through rough Martian terrain, challenging themselves to navigate and balance the rover while earning points along the way. The game also illustrates how NASA’s next Mars rover, in development for launch in 2020, will use radar to search for underground water.

“We’re excited about a new way for people on the go to engage with Curiosity’s current adventures on Mars and future exploration by NASA’s Mars 2020 rover too,” says Michelle Viotti, manager of Mars public engagement initiatives at JPL. “Using social networks, the user can share the fun with friends. The interest that is shared through gameplay also helps us open a door to deeper literacy in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.” JPL collaborated with GAMEE, a network for game-players, for development of the game, called Mars Rover.

For more information about how the Mars Rover game relates to exploration by NASA’s Mars rovers, visit: mars.nasa.gov/gamee-rover

Meanwhile, on Mars, the real rover has driven to position for drilling into a rock target called “Marimba,” to acquire rock powder for onboard laboratory analysis. The rover has begun a multi-month ascent of a mudstone geological unit as it heads toward higher and progressively younger geological evidence on Mount Sharp.

During the rover’s first Earth year on Mars, the mission accomplished its main goal when it found and examined an ancient habitable environment. No signs of life have yet been found, but researchers determined that a freshwater lake at the Yellowknife Bay site billions of years ago offered the chemical ingredients and energy favorable for supporting microbial life. Stay tuned!

Here at home, we have good views of Mars in our southern sky, along with four other bright planets. Venus, now appearing as the “evening star,” is just above the southwest horizon after sunset. To the upper left of Venus, look for Mercury, Jupiter, orange Mars, and golden Saturn (in that order).



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