Today NASA’s Curiosity rover celebrates 10 years on Mars, and it’s still going strong since its landing on August 6, 2012. As the first of a new design of Martian rover along with Perseverance, Curiosity has not only provided illuminating scientific information about the history and geology of the planet but has also demonstrated a host of engineering concepts that have made rovers bigger and better than ever before.
When you think of a Mars rover, many people are picturing something small, like the microwave-sized Sojourner which landed on Mars in 1997, or the golf cart sized Opportunity and Spirit rovers which landed in 2004. But Curiosity marked the beginning of much larger rovers, as it and Perseverance are car-sized and significantly heavier than their trailblazing brethren. This increase in size and mass means that newer rovers can carry far more complex scientific instruments, turning rovers from pint-sized explorers which could collect only basic data into mobile laboratories. That principle is where Curiosity got its technical mission name, Mars Science Laboratory.
A bigger and heavier rover faces a bigger challenge, though, in terms of how it can be landed on Mars. Previous generations of Mars rovers were covered in airbags and essentially fell onto the surface where they would bounce around before coming to a stop, with air in the airbags protecting them from impacts. But Curiosity’s significant mass made airbags ineffective, so a new landing system was developed.
The sky crane system which delivered both Curiosity and Perseverance safely to the Martian surface works using a jetpack that fires thrusters to slow descent while the rover is lowered on a set of cables. Once the rover has touched down, the cables detach and the jetpack flies away to prevent any tangles between it and the rover. This system helps to place a rover in a specific and predictable location, unlike the unpredictable bouncing of airbags, and it can let down much heavier rovers safely.
Curiosity immediately captured the hearts of the public and has produced stunning images of the Martian landscape as well as beautiful images of clouds in addition to its work looking for signs of ancient life and measuring the martian atmosphere. Some of its most popular outreach projects have included enormous high-resolution panoramas and videos showing the Gale Crater, where it is exploring.
Mars is still a tough environment though, and Curiosity has had to face challenges like sharp rocks which have damaged its wheels. To mitigate this issue, the rover driving team is careful about how they use Curiosity to ensure that as little damage as possible is done to the hardware so it can continue working for as long as it can.
“As soon as you land on Mars, everything you do is based on the fact that there’s no one around to repair it for 100 million miles,” said Andy Mishkin, Curiosity’s acting project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in a statement. “It’s all about making intelligent use of what’s already on your rover.”