The student news site of University of Wisconsin-Platteville.


The student news site of University of Wisconsin-Platteville.


The student news site of University of Wisconsin-Platteville.


The Curiosity Rover: 4,000 Martian Days of Discoveries

How a 23 month mission turned into one of humanity’s greatest achievements
Image courtesy of NASA

NASA’s Curiosity Rover landed on Mars on Aug. 5, 2012, and has spent over 4,000 Martian days on the red planet.
The purpose of its mission was to observe and answer the question if Mars ever had the right conditions to support small micro-organisms named microbes, over the course of only one Martian year, or 23 Earth months. The 8,583 pound, seven-foot-tall rover was equipped with 11 unique scientific instruments, 17 cameras, a laser and drill to aid in its journey to the planet. On Nov. 26, 2011, the Atlas V rocket was launched carrying the rover out of Earths atmosphere, then the rover traveled 352 million miles over the course of eight months.
The main tools on the rover were to be used to collect soil and rock samples to analyze for traces of water or organic life. The instruments aboard were also to used to take a closer look into these samples for the presence of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and or sulfur. These are considered the building blocks of life.
Other tools and instruments aboard were to be used to monitor and collect data of the atmosphere and radiation levels. The rover was given a seven-foot boom arm to collect the rock samples and to drop them into a holding container aboard the rover. Data would then be sent back to Earth, but due to the distance of Mars from Earth there was about a 13-minute sending and receiving delay to the rover.
The rover was sent through thorough testing to make sure it would be able to preform in such a manor where it will be efficient and reliable. It is powered by a radioisotope power system that generates energy from the heat of the decay from the plutonium inside the generator. Most of the operations of the rover, such as the instruments and input control, were being heavily relied on by the communication system set up by the 2001 Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
With this power source the rover was reliably able to move 295 feet per hour on its six-wheeled system. This system is called a “rocker-bogie” system named after the term “bogie” from the structure of a trains undercarriage system and “rocker” from its ability to “rock” itself when presented with an uneven surface.
Upon arriving at the red planet, the designated landing site of the rover was the Gale Crater, an impact crater that is estimated to be 3.5 to 3.8 billion years old. The atmospheric entry of the rover was called the “Seven Minutes of Terror” for how crucial this portion of the mission was. If any system failed on entry it could lead to damage to the equipment, loss of contact or even the worst possible outcome: the crash landing of the one-billion-dollar rover.
This rover was much heavier than any other object landed on Mars, so the calculations done by the engineers were done with multiple assumptions and prenotions. The rover was brought to a speed of Mach 1.7 by atmospheric drag then a parachute was launched to slow its descent along with the use of a few propellent devices.
The rover was attached to a crane that once the crane landed it would lower the rover on the surface. The crane then was propelled up and away from the rover and crashed 710 yards away.
The rover would then not have an initial instrument check until Aug 15, 2012, where its movement and instruments would be used to check for any damages. On Aug. 29, 2012, the rover would start moving and carrying out its mission.
Its first moments moving around it traveled 440 yards over the course of two months. On its initial observations NASA noted that the geology of the location hinted at potential evidence of a stream bed that existed at this location.
As of March 2013, the rover conducted analysis of a rock that NASA has named “John Klein” where the reported results suggested that the Gale Crater was once a location that could support microbial life.
On Dec. 16, 2014, when NASA had announced that evidence for organic molecules on Mars. The samples were in the Sheepbed mudstone of the Gale Crater. In this sample it contained small amounts of methane; however, it was speculated that this could be traces from dust from meteorites that have landed on the planet.
The time the rover spent on Mars was not straight forward and easy going, for it had many different electrical and mechanical difficulties.
On Feb. 28, 2013, the on-board memory had a problem that forced the computer to continually reboot on loop. This issue was fixed by switching to the backup computer on March 19 later that year. On Nov. 7 of that same year the rover abruptly went into safety mode due to a voltage problem aboard the rover that was resolved later Nov. 17. As of 2022 the rover has sustained damage due to wear over the years. As of this year a software update was sent to the rover allowing it to move faster while minimizing wheel wear.
As of this year the rover has collected 39 rock samples, climbed a three-mile-tall slope to observe the different surface layers and traveled across 20 miles over the Martian surface.
These feats have not only been a success of the mission but for future missions planned for the red planet. There were demonstrations of the ability to land a heavy object on the face of the planet with precision and accuracy along with the demonstration of long-range mobility of a remote device on the surface of Mars for a long-extended amount of time.
The Curiosity Rover not only exceeded the expectations of its initial mission but exceeded what was capable of its design and directive. It is an inspiration to future missions and what is possible. It not only found evidence of the building blocks of life but showed the durability and reliability of its engineering. This mission laid the foundational work for future missions to Mars.

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