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Published: Friday, 8/9/2013


Martian year

This photo released by NASA shows a self-portrait taken by the NASA rover Curiosity in Gale Crater on Mars. This photo released by NASA shows a self-portrait taken by the NASA rover Curiosity in Gale Crater on Mars.

NASA’s Curiosity rover has spent a year on Mars, patiently looking for evidence that Earth’s nearest planetary neighbor may once have been hospitable to life.

It has already found traces of what appear to be an ancient riverbed and clay minerals. That indicates water was no stranger to the environment.

Rolling along at the leisurely pace of 100 yards a day through the dull and barren landscape known as the Gale Crater, Curiosity is an estimated nine months from its destination — the imposing Mount Sharp in the geographic center of the crater.

Curiosity has taken 36,700 photographs and 75 laser shots of rocks that will help geologists and scientists piece together a narrative about not only Mars’ formation, but also our own. These are heady times for scientists with expertise in clay, water, and rock formations, thanks to Curiosity.

A year ago, the rover made a perilous descent from orbit that NASA described as “seven minutes of terror” because of the likelihood that it would fail and scatter its delicate components on impact. Today, Curiosity is showing the value of its $2.5 billion price tag.

The rover, which is roughly the size of a car, can perform the mission without complaining that it would be too tedious or fearing that it would be deadly, as it would be for even the most dedicated human geologist. It is collecting data about an environment that mankind has every intention of visiting, and perhaps cultivating for colonization one day.

Curiosity has been on Mars for only a year. But it already has symbolically planted humanity’s flag on that planet with its distinctive tire tracks crisscrossing the surface.

One day, if humans are lucky, our footprints will intersect with Curiosity’s treads in an ancient basin there, bringing this spectacular mission full circle.

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