A year after Curiosity's liftoff, discoveries and research

As the super rover drills rocks and analyzes soil on Mars, scientists work to confirm major discovery

A year after NASA's Mars rover Curiosity blasted off on its 352-million-mile journey to the Red Planet, the nuclear-powered super rover has discovered evidence of ancient water flows and is studying the planet's atmosphere and surface.

Monday marks the one-year anniversary of Curiosity's liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station aboard an Atlas V rocket. That was the day NASA's latest and most technically sophisticated rover began its more than eight-month journey to Mars for what NASA hopes will be a two-year mission.

Curiosity is on a mission to search for evidence of whether Mars is or has ever been capable of supporting life, even if in a microbial form.

Since landing on Mars in early August, the rover has gone through a major software upgrade, changing Curiosity's software from a program optimized for landing on Mars to one optimized for working on the planet's surface.

At first, NASA scientists were busy having the rover test its driving capability, unstowing and stretching out its robotic arm. Then the rover began sending images and video of its surroundings, and of itself, back to Earth.

Within a month of landing on Mars, Curiosity was blasting its first Martian rock with a laser and then analyzing the resulting plasma.

"Our team is both thrilled and working hard, looking at the results," Roger Wiens of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, said last August. "After eight years building the instrument, it's payoff time."

Within two months of landing, NASA reported that Curiosity discovered evidence of a thousand-year water flow on Mars. The finding, which came in the form of an outcropping of rocks that appeared to have been heaved up by a vigorous water flow, echos a similar finding by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter more than a year ago.

Now Curiosity is moving across the surface of Mars, taking soil samples and searching for rocks to drill for more samples.

Now that the rover has discovered evidence that the planet used to have water, which is one of the key elements needed for life, it is on the hunt for other necessary elements.

Followers of Curiosity's work on Mars are waiting for NASA to make an announcement about what may be a major finding.

Last week, NPR.org reported that John Grotzinger, NASA's principal investigator for the Mars rover Curiosity mission, said they may have made a discovery "for the history books." Scientists are holding off on releasing the information until they can confirm the results.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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