Six Earth years ago, Curiosity made her
spectacular landing on Mars, starting her mission to find evidence that the red planet could have once hosted microbial life. Some 13,500 viewers tuned in to watch the unmanned rover’s nail-biting descent, which required the Mini Cooper-sized vehicle to perform maneuvers that had only been tested in computer simulations. She needed to slow down from 13,000 miles per hour and touch down, unharmed, inside the Gale Crater.
Curiosity’s resilience has been a hallmark of her expedition, blowing past the expected two-year mission length to continue to send us fascinating information today about our mysterious celestial neighbor. The rover’s 17 cameras—which range from eight black-and-white, obstacle-avoiding Hazcams to her selfie-happy, high-resolution MAHLI camera—are instrumental to navigating, investigating, and documenting her surroundings on Mars.
about whether or not a robot can take aesthetically pleasing photographs, Curiosity, directed by a team of NASA scientists, does capture imagery that is both critical to NASA’s work and intriguing for casual stargazers. And, like a professional image-maker, the rover-slash-photographer has a post-production team at NASA that composites her captures to show wider views of the planet (though Curiosity’s Mastcams can automatically stitch 150 images into a panoramic view).
Curiosity’s findings so far have resulted in breakthroughs in showing us what water on Mars would have looked like billions of years ago. A month after landing, she documented three sites on the planet where gravel in exposed bedrock was likely once transported through tumultuous streams—a conclusion that was made based on the roundness of the stones. Her photos have also revealed that the Gale Crater, once a lakebed, likely went through dry periods where the water receded. And just this past June, thanks to her investigation, NASA announced that the ancient lake once contained complex organic molecules. The rover has also confirmed the presence of methane in the air, which, because of the molecule’s lifespan of only a few hundred years, means there must be an ongoing source, most likely deep under the planet’s surface.