LOS ANGELES —
Mission scientist Sushil Atreya of the University of Michigan remained calm until the last ten seconds. “Then it hit me — it’s crazy! It was an unbelievable feeling of relief when the first picture from the rover came down,” Atreya said.
Mike Malin, who operates Curiosity’s cameras, ticked off two of his favorite pictures from the mission so far: A view of the rover’s heat shield falling away right before landing and a color portrait of Mount Sharp.
“That looks so much like Utah that it felt very familiar,” said Malin, who heads Malin Space Science Systems.
Once the euphoria of landing wore off, the six-wheel, nuclear-powered rover went to work, spending two months testing its instruments and systems. The health checks took longer than expected because Curiosity was a complex machine.
To celebrate the landing anniversary, engineers commanded one of Curiosity’s instruments to play “Happy Birthday” as the rover took a break from driving.
Scientists initially hoped to head to Mount Sharp late last year, but decided to take a detour to an intriguing spot near the landing site where three different types of terrain intersected.
Curiosity discovered rounded pebbles — clear evidence of an ancient streambed. It also fulfilled one of the mission’s main goals. By drilling into a rock and analyzing its chemistry, Curiosity concluded that Gale Crater possessed the right environmental conditions to support primitive life. It’s not equipped to look for microbes, living or extinct.
With Curiosity busy studying rocks and dirt, the start date for the mountain trek kept getting pushed back. At one point, the team declined to predict anymore.
Now that it’s finally on the move, scientists hope to keep stops to a minimum. Along the way, Curiosity will take pictures, check the weather, track radiation and fire its laser at rocks.
Curiosity was such a smash that NASA is preparing for an encore performance in 2021 using the same landing technology. Budget willing, the next rover will be able to collect rocks and store them on the Martian surface for a possible future mission to pick up and ferry back to Earth.