After a year on Mars, NASA's Curiosity rover changes our view of the solar system

Robotic rover will soon get the smarts to make its own driving decisions

After just a year working on Mars, the NASA rover Curiosity is changing the way we look at our solar system.

Scientists say it may change how we look at ourselves, too.

"This work changes the picture of the solar system that we've had," Jennifer Trosper, NASA's deputy project manager for the Mars Science Lab Mission, told Computerworld. "In terms of the picture of the solar system that we all grew up learning, what if you draw a picture of it millions or billions of years ago and Mars was blue and looked more like Earth?

Rover self-portrait
NASA's rover Curiosity took this self-portrait, combining dozens of exposures taken by using a camera on the end of its robotic arm. (Image: NASA)

"This is a stepping stone," she said. "If we can learn about the past of Mars, we might someday be able to learn about these Earth-like planets that we're seeing very far away. And that could change our whole thinking about the solar system."

One year ago today, Curiosity, a plutonium-powered robotic rover the size of a small SUV, landed on the Martian surfacefirst rover to drill into a rock on a planet other than Earth.

Curiosity has already made significant findings even though it's only half-way through its primary two-year mission.

In fact, Curiosity, which joined its robotic predecessors Opportunity and Spirit on Mars early on Aug. 6, 2012, quickly achieved its main science goal: finding that ancient Mars could have supported life.

Last September, NASA scientists reported that Curiosity had uncovered evidence of a "vigorous" thousand-year water flow on the surface of Mars. That was important since Curiosity's primary mission was to discover whether Mars has -- or ever had -- the ability to support life, even in microbial form.

In March, Curiosity reported another key finding, when analysis of the dust from its first drilled Martian rock showed the presence of sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon - all key chemical ingredients for life.

The evidence that Mars once held long-standing water as well as these key chemicals meant the Red Planet could have supported life in the distant past.

"We've not found any smoking gun for life yet, but it's exciting to find a place that could have supported it," said Bethany Ehlmann, an assistant professor of planetary science at CalTech and a participating scientist on NASA's Curiosity team. "One of the biggest questions is how unique is our planet? Is Earth rare or common? Is there life elsewhere? If there's life on a neighboring planet, maybe it tells us something about the distribution of life in the rest of the universe."

For a machine that is working anywhere from about 34 million to 250 million miles away (depending on where both Earth and Mars are in their orbits), Curiosity is conducting some impressive science.

"It's the most powerful research tool that we have on another planet that has gone through an evolutionary process that's very similar to Earth," said Kerri Cahoy, a professor in aeronautics and astronautics at MIT and a NASA scientist working on projects at Goddard Space Flight Center. "It's about understanding what can happen to a planet, what conditions are ripe for life to form and if life never existed there, then why not? What's so special about where we are and how can we protect that?"

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