If seems like ‘light years’ ago that we were holding our breath, anticipating the landing of Curiosity, the Mars rover. It’s hard to believe that the little robot just celebrated its first birthday on Mars a few days ago.
We spoke to Guy Webster, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, about the highlights of the trip, what the team has planned for the rover in the future and whether or not Curiosity really meant to draw a penis in the sand.
Metro: Curiosity celebrated its first birthday by singing "Happy Birthday" to itself. Theoretically, if there was any other life out there, would they have been able to hear it? I thought you can't hear things in space.
Guy Webster: Sound waves can't travel in a vacuum, but Mars does have an atmosphere that could carry sound waves. There is only about one percent as much atmospheric pressure at the surface of Mars as at the surface of Earth, so sounds would be fainter and the frequencies would be different. Of course, there has been no finding of any form of life on Mars.
How did Curiosity get its name?
A public contest in 2008 and 2009 invited name suggestions from school students. A student in Kansas, Clara Ma, submitted the winning suggestion for naming the rover Curiosity. In her winning essay, she said, "Curiosity is the passion that drives us through our everyday lives. We have become explorers and scientists with our need to ask questions and to wonder."
The rover has done some scandalous things, like drawing that phallic symbol in the Martian dirt. Was that on purpose? Did anyone else notice before the picture went viral?
The rover's wheel tracks are traces of driving decisions that have been made for many reasons, but not for what the tracks will look like. Humans have a natural tendency to perceive familiar patterns, such as faces, in rocks and squiggles.
What is your favorite Curiosity moment?
It's tough to beat landing night, when so many things had to go right, and they did.
Other than that, it was thrilling to get the results indicating that Curiosity was working right in an area where a Martian stream used to flow. It's amazing to picture the rover driving where water flowed ankle deep, carrying rocks and sand with it from miles away.
What's coming up next for Curiosity?
The rover has driven away from an area where it first found evidence of an ancient Martian environment that offered conditions favorable for microbes to live, if Mars ever has had microbes.
In early July, Curiosity began a drive that will take many months to get to geological layers in the lower portion of a three-mile-tall mound, called Mount Sharp. There, the rover team hopes to find evidence about other past environments with habitable conditions, and how they changed. The team plans to drive the rover a few hundred meters up the mountain, studying each layer and the environmental conditions under which it formed.