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Mars Curiosity Discoveries

Curiosity Celebrates One Year on Mars by Taking Your Questions

Happy land-iversary, Curiosity! After a tense seven minutes of terror on Aug. 6, 2012, the Mars Curiosity rover landed on the Red Planet via space crane (operated from Earth) to the joy of a very excited group of scientists at NASA's JPL in California.

A group of women from that team (cheers to the ladies of science!) took to Reddit recently to answer just about every question the Internet has about the mission to Mars and what the rover has discovered. They covered everything from humans on Mars to a typical day for the rover to the biggest discoveries yet. Here, the most striking facts about the rover and her (yes, apparently Curiosity identifies as female) 12 months spent on the Red Planet.

What has been the most significant discovery so far?
"The results from our first rock drilling told us that the past environment, when that mudstone rock formed, was suitable for life. The mudstone formed in an ancient river system or an intermittently wet lake bed that could have provided the chemical energy and other favorable conditions for microbial life, if life existed then. This ancient wet environment was not harshly oxidizing, acidic or extremely salty. All the necessary chemical building blocks were available." — Joy Crisp, Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Deputy Project Scientist


Will Curiosity ever be in the presence of a human again?
"NASA does plan to send humans to Mars in the future, but it is unlikely we would send them to check out the existing rovers on the surface. Too many other interesting places to explore. Mars has the surface area of Earth, minus the oceans." — Sarah Marcotte, Mars Public Engagement

If conditions were good for life, why has no hard evidence been found to show that life did exist there in the past? What happened to all of the water that used to be there?
"Over millions of years the water evaporated because the atmosphere got too thin to support it in liquid form. Mars does not have a global magnetic field the way Earth does, which helps shield the atmosphere from [being] stripped away by the sun's damaging radiation. So while there is plenty of CO2 and H2O ice, no liquid is possible. If life arose on Mars, it would have been millions or even billions of years ago, and preserving evidence of life for billions of years is very hard. So the evidence could be there and we haven't found it, or life didn't arise. We have to find out!" — Sarah Marcotte

Could Curiosity be drilling through Martian bacteria without anyone knowing it due to its strange shape or composition?
"We believe that all forms of life will share basic chemical components which the rover can detect, even if they have been sitting around Mars for billions of years. Curiosity [is] not designed to find extant life, but is designed to find those building blocks of life, carbon, nitrogen, O2, sulfur, etc." — Sarah Marcotte

How advanced would you say Curiosity is in terms of its current A.I. capabilities (Perhaps compared to Google's self-driving car)? Do you envision a near future possibility that we could deploy a sentient rover on Mars?
"Curiosity has autonomous driving capabilities which are constantly being improved. However, for the first year we drive very carefully by using humans to review the pictures and choose the path across Mars. Curiosity has systems to keep herself safe if she thinks it will run over a cliff. However, when we have a far distance to travel and don't plan on checking out every interesting rock, Curiosity will be able to pick a way point and get herself there." — Sarah Marcotte

What type of fuel does Curiousity use?
"Curiosity has an MMRTG (Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator) that provides about 100W of power continuously along with a Lithium Ion battery that has ~80 AHr capacity. That's enough energy to keep us awake and heating/operating for about six to eight hours per day depending on what we're doing." — Jennifer Trosper, MSL Deputy Project Manager

More on the people behind Curiosity after the break.

A view of the Gale Crater from Curiosity's perspective

How did you come up with the rover's charming personality for Twitter and Facebook?
"Curiosity had the benefit of learning a lot from a previous Twitter account for @MarsPhoenix (2008). It was obvious during @MarsPhoenix that using first person was the best way to go. People were more responsive to the first person and it was easier to fit tweets into 140 characters. Curiosity is a mashup of personalities from three of us working together to do the posts each day. We want to make it fun but educational and interactive." — Veronica McGregor, Curiosity Social Media Team

What does the average day entail for an employee working on the Mars Curiosity Rover Mission?
"I am on Curiosity mission operations. In the beginning of the mission my average day involved setting my alarm clock 40 min later each day so I could stay on Curiosity's schedule. Now, we are on more of a normal schedule. I come into mission ops each morning to take a look at all of the data as it comes down. I analyze the data to understand the health of the rover mechanisms. The team uses this information to plan the next days activities. When I'm done with assessments for the day I typically work in the testbed with Curiosity's twin testing new software updates." — Megan Richardson, Mechanisms Downlink Engineer

What's the programming language is used to control the rover?
"C and C++ using the VxWorks OS running on a RAD 750 processor." — Jennifer Trosper

The JPL women behind this week's Reddit AMA.

What is the Curiosity team's most common degrees and educational background?
"Mechanical engineering seems to be the majority in the room but we have a scientist and some communications majors too!" — Carolina Martinez, Mars Public Engagement

"Most of our team that builds the rover are engineers: mechanical, software, aerospace, electrical, etc. A lot of the team that operates the rover are scientists: geologists, imaging scientists." — Jennifer Trosper

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