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At 5.31pm (NZT) on 6 August 2012, NASA’s Curiosity rover landed on Mars. The touchdown represented a stunning scientific achievement for the scientists and engineers involved in the project to get the car-sized travelling laboratory from Earth to our planetary neighbour.

The rover landed safely inside the Gale Crater beside a Martian mountain provisionally named Mt Sharp to begin 2 years of scientific detective work. Scientists believe the landing area is geologically diverse and are keen to sample various rocks in the area. In addition, they will also be keeping an eye out for any microbial life on Mars.

Possibility of finding life on Mars

A press release from NASA says Curiosity will begin investigating an area with a wet history inside Gale Crater that might at one point have offered an environment favourable for microbial life.

“Earlier missions have found that ancient Mars had wet environments,” says Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Programme at NASA Headquarters. “Curiosity takes us the next logical step in understanding the potential for life on Mars.”

Professor Craig Cary of Waikato University studies life in extreme environments like the Dry Valleys of Antarctica. He says the possibility of finding life on Mars is “absolutely there”.

“For life, you need water and you need a source of energy. The problem on Mars is the availability of water. All life forms need water, but the question is, at what level? We know there are organisms that can live in ice, for example, because ice has a tendency to create little channels that remain liquid even though the rest of the ice is frozen. Antarctic researchers have found bacteria that are hundreds of thousands of years old, dormant but still alive, in these channels. So, if there’s permafrost or ice underground, it’s a possibility.

“We know there are bacteria that can live in what would appear to us a very dry environment. Certain minerals attract water in what we call a mono-molecular layer – just a thin film of water across the surface of the mineral, but that’s enough for them to access. Although it seems like dry rock, for bacteria, it can be quite a lush environment.”

A long-running research project has studied how lichens and mosses manage to survive Antarctica’s sub-zero temperatures, find out more in this article, Life in the freezer.

Tools and instruments used on Curiosity

Curiosity will use tools (including a scoop, drill and sieve) on an extending 2-metre-long robotic arm to examine and deliver samples from Martian rocks and soils into laboratory instruments inside the rover that can analyse chemical and mineral composition. A laser instrument will use its beam to induce a spark on a target and read the spark’s spectrum of light to identify chemical elements in the target.

Other instruments on the rover will examine the surrounding environment from a distance or by direct touch with the arm. The rover will check for the basic chemical ingredients for life and for evidence about the energy available for life. It also will assess factors that could be hazardous for life, such as the radiation environment.

The rover is also taking lots of photos – several stunning images of a dry streambed and various rocks have already been captured. According to NASA, this mission is a precursor for future manned missions to Mars. President Obama set a challenge for humans to reach the red planet in the 2030s.

Death of legend

American astronaut and the first person to walk on the Moon, Neil Alden Armstrong, lived to see the Mars rover touch down but passed away on 25 August 2012 at the age of 82. Many of you reading this will be too young to remember the Moon landing on 21 July 1969, but the event gripped the world. Families and neighbours clustered around black and white television sets to watch as Mission Commander Neil Armstrong descended the ladder from the Apollo 11 Lunar Module. Every major newspaper ran the historic landing as front-page news. As Armstrong set his left foot on the surface of the Moon, he spoke a line that would become immortalised for all time:

That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.

Neil Armstrong

Neil Armstrong and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin spent more than 2 hours exploring the lunarscape, while Michael Collins remained in orbit in the Apollo 11 Command Module.

Related content

For updates on this mission see these 2 articles:

Activity idea

Tests carried out on Curiosity rover will analyse rocks from Mars for the basic chemical ingredients of life. Your students may like to try this activity, Is anything out there in which they work out which planets could have life.

Useful links

For more information about Curiosity and images and video of Mars, go to this page on the NASA website.

To watch a great video of how the Curiosity rover landed on Mars, check out 7 minutes of terror on the NASA website.

Read about the next rover that NASA will send to Mars in 2020 in this article. It will carry seven carefully-selected instruments to conduct unprecedented science and exploration technology investigations on the Red Planet.

    Published 16 October 2012, Updated 4 August 2014