How Curiosity revolutionized our knowledge of Mars

On August 6, 2012, after a seven-minute descent as NASA engineers clung to their chairs, Rover Curiosity She was putting her wheels in the crater of a volcano on the soil of Mars. The start of an adventure supposed to last two years which, a decade later, continues to excite scientists every morning who receive news and images collected by this nearly 900kg jewel of technology. Especially those behind the screens of the French Operations Center for Science and Exploration at the Toulouse Space Center.

For ten years, CNES engineers and researchers from the Pink City’s Astrophysical and Planetary Research Institute have been scrutinizing the results of laser shots they programmed on the ChemCam instrument the day before, millions of kilometers off the cow floor. Since arriving at the Red Planet, having covered a distance of 28.4 kilometers, the rover has not been idle, aiming 907,000 times at the surrounding rock.

Mars confirmed

Not for the pleasure of degumming the sediment, but to achieve the goals of the Mars Science Laboratory Exploration Mission, launched in 2003, by monitoring its chemical composition with a spectrometer. Earth and Mars formed at the same time but evolved differently. We want to know why Mars became this way. It is also a way to better understand Earth, study the emergence of life, as well as the climate of Mars, and why not, prepare for the next human exploration,” recalls Valerie Mousset, Curiosity Project Director at the French National Center for Space Studies.

The mission Curiosity has already accomplished largely because it demonstrated “that in the past Mars could have been habitable over 3 billion years ago in a simple form of life,” continues the director. Thus Curiosity found traces of water, chemical and biological compounds essential for microbiological life and traces of organic molecules.

“Thanks to all of these measurements, we were able to make a chemical map. So we are interested in small shifts over time, how often the rocks have been in contact with water but also to look at how they were formed by wind,” continues Olivier Jasneau, ChemCam instrument lead and researcher at IRAP. Such a fascinating photo of a 1cm-high sand rose, a small concrete block eroded by sedimentary rock held together by mineral-rich groundwater.

The teams thus showed that the Red Planet experienced alternating periods of dryness and moisture, before drying out completely nearly 3 billion years ago.

Discovering a huge valley

Thanks to the excavator and excavator, Curiosity was also able to collect and analyze soil samples. Finding low levels of methane, clays, chlorinated salts, perchlorates, and “among the most recent major discoveries, we recently found sulfur compounds,” notes Arnaud Buch, CNRS engineer at Atmospheric, Environments, and Spatial Observations Laboratory.

Despite its worn wheels and harsh temperature conditions, the rover will continue to roll its hump for another three years. NASA has already committed to funding the mission’s operations and research until 2025. Although its persevering successor more than 3,000 kilometers away continues to study the surface of Mars’ soil and collect samples, Curiosity is now entering a valley 800 meters wide and 100 meters high. “At the bottom of the valley, there is like the bottom of a river, which could be the last flows of water on Mars. A large pebble scattered on the ground will allow us to see what is above,” Olivier Jasneau enthuses. The adventure is not over yet.

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