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Curiosity: One year of science and social media


Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter

Tuesday, August 6, 2013, 7:45 AM -

One year ago, on August 5, 2012, one of the most advanced science platforms in history touched down on the surface of Mars.

Since then, Curiosity has sent back more than 190,000 gigabits of data. Its 17 cameras have shot 70,000 images of various types. Its online suite of high-tech instruments has been hard at work, and the rover has fired around 75,000 laser shots at more than 2,000 targets. All this as it trundled only 1.6 km on the Martian surface.

Those are just numbers, so here's a look back at a few episodes in the rover's short life that have rocketed it into the popular mind.

The seven minutes of terror

Imagine you spent years building and developing one of the most advanced robots in history, and paid billions of dollars for the privilege.

Then you got to watch it launch into space (on November 26, 2011) on an eight-month space voyage.

Then, after all this, you get to watch it plunge toward toward the surface of another planet, knowing full well that if one thing goes wrong, there is absolutely nothing you can do but look on as all your work for the past five years goes down in flames.

That would be why, in this dramatic mini-documentary from NASA, everyone in Mission Control just completely loses it when their baby phones home from the surface for the first time:

You can even check out the landing from the rover’s perspective, in this sped-up stop motion shot taken from Curiosity’s Mars Descent Imager, covering the last two and a half minutes of the landing:

Once it was down, everybody could take a breath, and get down to the business of planetary exploration.

Also, the incessant tweeting.

Tweeting frequencies open.

Twitter was just a couple years old, when this unassuming tweet popped into existence:

The rover that captured the public’s imagination like few other space missions in living memory didn’t even have a name. Now it’s on the Red Planet, and the lucky owner of a social media team that has packed its feed with  2,200-odd tweets (sent to more than 1.3 million followers) that would almost have you believe the rover was the embodiment of social media savvy.

We’re pretty sure it’s the only space probe to live tweet its own landing (sort of):

Then, of course, the science started to happen:

And, interspersed with the real science, the occasional shout out to science fiction (and things that are…tenuously related to science):

And, like any good pop culture phenomenon, the occasional parody account:

Joking apart, the easy humour and plain language that make up most of the rover’s tweets has served a real purpose: Introducing an ever-connected generation to the continued exploration of our solar system. 

It’s not quite like listening to the 1969 moon landings on the radio, but if it keeps people interested in science, it’s not a bad thing.

The mayor of Mars

The team behind Curiosity must be one of the most social media-conscious on the planet, so they can be forgiven for only remembering to check the rover in on Foursquare a whole two months after landing:

Yet another milestone: It was, of course, the first time anything or anyone had checked in from another planet (Astronaut Doug Wheelock was the first person to check in from space during his mission to the International Space Station in 2010).

Aside from posting the occasional tidbit on its page, NASA even joined forces with Foursquare to offer a Curiosity Explorer badge:

Image: NASA/Foursquare

Image: NASA/Foursquare

Users can earn this badge, and boost their science cred, by checking in at a NASA visitor centre, or at facilities listed as planetariums or science centres.

The selfie to end all selfies.

The average earthling has had a relatively advanced camera in their hands for as long as they’ve had a cell phone – and for most people, that camera’s primary use is taking pictures of food, cats, and themselves.

Naturally, the savvy Curiosity had to get in on that:

IMAGE: NASA

IMAGE: NASA

It may very well be the first-ever selfie from another planet … and it’s also a fun photography trick, too.

Conspiracy theorists and perfectly reasonable people alike were asking: How could the rover take a third-person shot of itself? There’s no camera arm!

Okay, NASA cheated a bit: Curiosity does have a camera arm, but it doesn’t appear in the shot. It took 55 different shots from various angles, then beamed them back to earth to be stitched together by its earth-bound handlers.

It’s not just for fun – it helps Mission Control do a visual inspection of their precious rover (it’s not like they can roll it to the nearest garage).

When you spent billions of dollars sending a car-sized mobile science platform to another planet, you’ll want to make sure it’s working properly.

The sweet, sweet science.

Almost nobody aside from real scientists calls Curiosity by its proper name: The Mars Science Laboratory.

Curiosity’s mission is science and exploration. But aside from research into the planet’s current, harsh conditions, the rover is also looking for signs of water, microbial life either past or present, and what kind of challenges a manned Mars mission would face.

It’s already gone a long way toward answering the bigger questions. When Curiosity drilled into a rock in a dried streambed, it found traces of nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, carbon and other elements associated with conditions that could support life.

Image: NASA

Image: NASA

Notice how we said “streambed?” In another huge discovery, the rover found rock types that are usually found where there is, or was, flowing water:

Image: NASA

Image: NASA

They reckon any such “stream” at that location in ancient times was between ankle and hip deep and flowed around three feet per second.

It all points to life on Mars – except when the rover scanned for methane, a gas given off my organic life, the results weren't positive.

Curiosity's Laser spectrometer. Image: NASA

Curiosity's Laser spectrometer. Image: NASA

But don’t despair. Curiosity’s science team says methane can be tough to detect, and it may exist elsewhere on the planet away from the rover’s landing site.

As for human life, well, Curiosity says there’s a snag: During its nine-month trip to Mars, the rover experienced more solar radiation than astronauts’ entire career limit, as set by NASA. That’s not counting how much radiation it's experienced since it landed.

Image: NASA

Image: NASA

That doesn’t mean we can’t send people to Mars. Instead, Curiosity’s findings will be used to figure out ways to make the trip safer for future astronauts.

And that’s just the cream of the crop of a research mission that is barely a year old. NASA originally intended the rover’s mission to last around two earth years, but its nuclear-powered reactor could keep it running far longer than that, until NASA sends another planned rover by around 2020.

So, happy anniversary, Curiosity. Keep on sciencing.

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