NASA has released several “postcards” sent home by Curiosity to mark its 8th anniversary since it landed to explore the Red Planet.
Since touching down in Gale Crater on August 5, 2012, the rover has been exploring Mars’s dusty surface and taking samples in its quest to discover if the planet has ever had the right conditions to support microbial life.
In its 8 years, the car-sized rover has seen a lot, trundling more than 23 kilometers (14 miles) across the planet’s rocky, sandy surface, digging 26 holes, and taking six soil samples that its team back home at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory have revealed shows ancient Mars was indeed suitable for life.
Curiosity's sophisticated suite of tools includes 17 cameras, all the better for sending back snapshots and selfies that reveal what life on Mars currently looks like for the only planet (we know of) inhabited entirely by robots. NASA has selected eight photos and panoramas Curiosity has sent home over the years to mark an incredible 8 years.
As this self-portrait above, taken on June 15, 2018 (or sol 2082), shows, fieldwork can be dirty work. The rover was at the "Duluth" drill site north of the Vera Rubin Ridge in Gale Crater during a dust storm that enshrouded Mars at the time. You can see the drill hole in the rock to the left of the rover and the discarded drill material on the ground as a little orange streak in front of it. Selfies are taken to capture the landscape each sample is taken from.
Curiosity may be in a crater, but when it looks up this is what it sees. Mount Sharp is actually in Gale Grater, and though Curiosity will never get to its peak, it's been exploring the foot of the 5-kilometer-high (3 miles) mountain and what the rock layers can tell us about how Mars's climate changed over time.
"I love this image because it tells two stories – one about the mission and one about Mars," said Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity's project scientist at JPL. "The crater rim and floor where we started at eight years ago peek in from the left, while spread out before us is the future as Curiosity climbs higher on the mountain."
Look how far we've come
This image, taken by Curiosity at the base of Mount Sharp, shows the rocky landscape in amazing detail. The little arrow, however, shows approximately where Curiosity is as of July 30, 2020, 5.5 kilometers (3.5 miles) away, 6 years later. You may not think that is an impressive distance for 6 years of travel, but Curiosity only travels at 0.14 kilometers (0.09 miles) an hour, and have you seen that terrain?
Stop and look around
This panoramic view of the floor of Gale Crater was taken in January 2018 when Curiosity climbed the Vera Rubin Ridge. It was Martian winter and the skies cleared to reveal this spectacular view. You can even see a hill that isn't in the crater 80 kilometers (50 miles) away. It was the first time scientists could look back at Curiosity's entire journey and see everywhere it had been so far. In the video, Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada gives a tour of the places visited along the way.
This wide panorama was taken back on December 19, 2019, on sol 2,620 of the mission. NASA scientists called it a Spaghetti Western landscape on Mars because parts of the Martian desert resemble the American Southwest. The shot features 130 images stitched together and slightly white-balanced so the colors of the rocks appear how they would in daylight on Earth conditions.
This awesome image shows two different types of rippling sand dunes, one type not seen on Earth. Taken at Namib Dune on December 13, 2015, it shows two sizes of ripples sculpted by the wind. The smaller type exists on Earth, but the larger type, around 3 meters (10 feet) apart, only occurs on Mars because of its thin atmosphere.
Curiosity doesn't spend all its time staring at the ground, it also studies the Martian atmosphere. The air on Mars is only 1 percent as dense as on Earth, and there is little water, but water-clouds do occasionally form. These clouds, which likely formed from water-ice, were snapped about 31 kilometers (19 miles) above the ground in May last year.
Life's a beach, dig a hole
Curiosity has dug 26 holes so far, collecting samples with its robotic arm. The map on the left shows where the holes were drilled on the rover's route, including where it scooped up six soil samples. Curiosity won't be sending any samples back to Earth. It analyses samples where it is and sends the information digitally to the team at JPL. Perseverance, NASA's newest rover currently on its way to Mars, will be sending samples home, and if we're lucky we should get them by 2031.