As the Mars Curiosity rover celebrated its first full Martian year—the equivalent of 687 Earth days—spent lumbering over the dusty plains of the red planet, it turned its camera arm on itself and took a selfie. But what has Curiosity accomplished this year? Quite a lot.
The rover landed on Mars on August 6, 2012, and quickly discovered an ancient riverbed near its landing site. By the following March, it had succeeded in completing its primary mission: to discover whether the Red Planet could have supported life. The historic “yes” came when it drilled into two mudstone slabs, concluding that the area known as Yellowknife Bay, in the Gale Crater, had once housed a lake bed with flowing water and all the major ingredients of life: sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon.
Since then, the rover has sampled rocks at two other sites that support the original conclusion.
The rover was also able to gather data on radiation exposure during the flight to Mars and while on the Martian surface, information that is vital to designing future human missions to Mars.
In addition, Curiosity determined the approximate age of a rock on Mars’s surface. The rock, nicknamed “Cumberland,” was found to be between 3.86 billion and 4.56 billion years old. The ability to take that measurement was “unprecedented” and “considered unlikely” when the rover first landed in 2012, according to NASA.
Curiosity is still in excellent health and charging forward. When it first landed, its mission was expected to last two Earth years, making Tuesday’s Martian anniversary the end of the rover’s intended lifespan. But NASA engineers typically design its mechanisms for two to three times the rover’s planned life span, Pete Theisinger, a project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Space.com. Curiosity’s nuclear power source is still going strong and could last a total of 14 years.
Now Curiosity’s drivers are carefully steering it toward its final destination, the side of a mountain known as Mount Sharp, where scientists hope to study how Mars’s environment evolved by comparing the mountainside with data from Yellowknife Bay.
Two paths diverged on a Red Planet, and I, I took the south one, and that has made all the difference. pic.twitter.com/QWJ42jxhMi— Curiosity Rover (@MarsCuriosity) June 17, 2014