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August 5, 2013

NASA’s Curiosity rover celebrates 1 year on Mars

LOS ANGELES —

Mount Sharp has beckoned Curiosity since the NASA rover made its grand entrance on Mars exactly a year ago, dangling from nylon cables to a safe landing.

If microbes ever existed on Mars, the mountain represents the best hope for preserving the chemical ingredients that are fundamental to all living things.

After a poky but productive start, Curiosity recently pointed its wheels south, rolling toward the base of Mount Sharp in a journey that will last many months. Expect Curiosity to channel its inner tourist as it drives across the rock-strewn landscape, dodging bumps and taking in the scenery.

“We do a lot of off-roading on a lot of little dirt roads,” said mission manager Jennifer Trosper.

Curiosity will unpack its toolkit once it arrives at its destination to hunt for the organic building blocks of life.

Scientists have been eager for a peek of Mount Sharp since Curiosity, the size of a small SUV, touched down in an ancient crater near the Martian equator on the night of Aug. 5, 2012.

The world wondered whether Curiosity would nail its landing, which involved an acrobatic plunge through the thin atmosphere that ended with it being gently lowered to the ground with cables.

Engineers had to invent new tricks since Curiosity was too massive to bounce to a landing cocooned in airbags — the preferred choice for previous rovers Spirit and Opportunity.

After seven terrifying minutes, a voice echoed through mission control at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Touchdown confirmed,” said engineer Allen Chen. “We’re safe on Mars.”

Scientists and engineers clad in matching sky-blue polo shirts erupted in cheers. Some were so excited that they overshot their high-fives.

Curiosity became a pop sensation. Several of Curiosity’s handlers including Bobak “Mohawk Guy” Ferdowsi became science rock stars.

The technical prowess required to pull off such a landing has “captured the imagination of a whole new generation of prospective explorers,” said American University space policy professor Howard McCurdy, who has closely followed the $2.5 billion mission.

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