Mars is tough on wheels. The metallic wheels on the Curiosity rover, for example, look like they have more holes and tears than tread. In fact, flight controllers recently had to abandon an area they wanted to explore because it was covered in sharp rocks described as “gator backs.”
That’s one of the few things that’s slowed the rover, which arrived at Mars 10 years ago tonight. In its decade of travels, it’s covered more than 17 miles, and climbed up and down several hills.
When it landed, Curiosity was the biggest and most sophisticated Mars rover yet. The nuclear-powered craft was as big as a minivan. It was bristling with cameras, and it carried a chemical laboratory for analyzing the rocks and dirt. It also had a laser to “zap” the rocks, allowing its instruments to study the vaporized debris.
Curiosity landed in Gale Crater — an ancient impact crater with a tall mountain at its middle. Curiosity’s main mission was to find out whether the site had once had comfortable conditions for life.
And it quickly found that it probably did. Water once filled the crater. Despite years of trying, though, it hasn’t found any evidence of life itself — at least not in the rocks. It has detected methane gas wafting through the crater. On Earth, methane most commonly is produced by life. But there’s no confirmation that anything is living in Gale Crater — or ever has.
Script by Damond Benningfield