Category: rover

10 Things: Mars Helicopter

When our next Mars rover lands on the Red Planet in
2021, it will deliver a groundbreaking technology demonstration: the
first helicopter to ever fly on a planetary body other than Earth. This
Mars Helicopter will demonstrate the first controlled, powered,
sustained flight on another world. It could also pave the way for future
missions that guide rovers and gather science data and images at
locations previously inaccessible on Mars. This exciting new technology
could change the way we explore Mars.

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1. Its body is small, but its blades are mighty.

One of the biggest engineering challenges is getting the
Mars Helicopter’s blades just right. They need to push enough air
downward to receive an upward force that allows for thrust and
controlled flight — a big concern on a planet where the atmosphere is
only one percent as dense as Earth’s. “No helicopter has flown in those
flight conditions – equivalent to 100,000 feet (30,000 meters) on
Earth,” said Bob Balaram, chief engineer for the project at our Jet
Propulsion Laboratory.

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2. It has to fly in really thin Martian air.

To compensate for Mars’ thin atmosphere, the blades must
spin much faster than on an Earth helicopter, and the blade size
relative to the weight of the helicopter has to be larger too. The Mars
Helicopter’s rotors measure 4 feet wide (about 1.2 meters) long, tip to
tip. At 2,800 rotations per minute, it will spin about 10 times faster
than an Earth helicopter.

At the same time, the blades shouldn’t flap around too much, as
the helicopter’s design team discovered during testing. Their solution:
make the blades more rigid. “Our blades are much stiffer than any
terrestrial helicopter’s would need to be,” Balaram said.  

The body, meanwhile, is tiny — about the size of a softball. In
total, the helicopter will weigh just under 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms).

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3. It will make up to five flights on Mars.

Over a 30-day period on Mars, the helicopter will attempt
up to five flights, each time going farther than the last. The
helicopter will fly up to 90 seconds at a time, at heights of up to 10
to 15 feet (3 to 5 meters). Engineers will learn a lot about flying a
helicopter on Mars with each flight, since it’s never been done before!

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4. The Mars Helicopter team has already completed groundbreaking tests.

Because a helicopter has never visited Mars before, the
Mars Helicopter team has worked hard to figure out how to predict the
helicopter’s performance on the Red Planet. “We had to invent how to do
planetary helicopter testing on Earth,” said Joe Melko, deputy chief
engineer of Mars Helicopter, based at JPL.

The team, led by JPL and including members from JPL,
AeroVironment Inc.,  Ames Research Center, and Langley Research
Center, has designed, built and tested a series of test vehicles.

In 2016, the team flew a full-scale prototype test model
of the helicopter in the 25-foot (7.6-meter) space simulator at JPL. The
chamber simulated the low pressure of the Martian atmosphere. More
recently, in 2018, the team built a fully autonomous helicopter designed
to operate on Mars, and successfully flew it in the 25-foot chamber in
Mars-like atmospheric density.

Engineers have also exercised the rotors of a test
helicopter in a cold chamber to simulate the low temperatures of Mars at
night. In addition, they have taken design steps to deal with Mars-like
radiation conditions. They have also tested the helicopter’s landing
gear on Mars-like terrain. More tests are coming to see how it performs
with Mars-like winds and other conditions.

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5. The camera is as good as your cell phone camera.

The helicopter’s first priority is successfully flying on
Mars, so engineering information takes priority. An added bonus is its
camera. The Mars Helicopter has the ability to take color photos with a
13-megapixel camera — the same type commonly found in smart phones
today. Engineers will attempt to take plenty of good pictures.

6. It’s battery-powered, but the battery is rechargeable.

The helicopter requires 360 watts of power for each
second it hovers in the Martian atmosphere – equivalent to the power
required by six regular lightbulbs. But it isn’t out of luck when its
lithium-ion batteries run dry. A solar array on the helicopter will
recharge the batteries, making it a self-sufficient system as long as
there is adequate sunlight. Most of the energy will be used to keep the
helicopter warm, since nighttime temperatures on Mars plummet to around
minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 90 Celsius). During daytime flights,
temperatures may rise to a much warmer minus 13 to minus 58 degrees
Fahrenheit to (minus 25 to minus 50 degrees Celsius) — still chilly by
Earth standards. The solar panel makes an average of 3 watts of power
continuously during a 12-hour Martian day.

7. The helicopter will be carried to Mars under the belly of the rover.

Somewhere between 60 to 90 Martian days (or sols) after
the Mars 2020 rover lands, the helicopter will be deployed from the
underside of the rover. Mars Helicopter Delivery System on the rover
will rotate the helicopter down from the rover and release it onto the
ground. The rover will then drive away to a safe distance.

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8. The helicopter will talk to the rover.

The Mars 2020 rover will act as a telecommunication
relay, receiving commands from engineers back on Earth and relaying them
to the helicopter. The helicopter will then send images and information
about its own performance to the rover, which will send them back to
Earth. The rover will also take measurements of wind and atmospheric
data to help flight controllers on Earth.

9. It has to fly by itself, with some help.

Radio signals take time to travel to Mars — between four
and 21 minutes, depending on where Earth and Mars are in their orbits —
so instantaneous communication with the helicopter will be impossible.
That means flight controllers can’t use a joystick to fly it in real
time, like a video game. Instead, they need to send commands to the
helicopter in advance, and the little flying robot will follow through.
Autonomous systems will allow the helicopter to look at the ground,
analyze the terrain to look how fast it’s moving, and land on its own.

10. It could pave the way for future missions.

A future Mars helicopter could scout points of interest,
help scientists and engineers select new locations and plan driving
routes for a rover. Larger standalone helicopters could carry science
payloads to investigate multiple sites at Mars. Future helicopters could
also be used to fly to places on Mars that rovers cannot reach, such as
cliffs or walls of craters. They could even assist with human
exploration one day. Says Balaram: “Someday, if we send astronauts,
these could be the eyes of the astronauts across Mars.”

Read the full version of this week’s ‘10 Things to Know’ article on the web HERE.

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10 Things to Know: Massive Dust Storm on Mars

Massive Martian dust storms have been challenging—and enticing—scientists for decades. Here’s the scoop on Martian dust:

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1: Challenging Opportunity

Our Opportunity rover is facing one of the greatest challenges of its 14 ½ year mission on the surface of Mars–a massive dust storm that has turned day to night. Opportunity is currently hunkered down on Mars near the center of a storm bigger than North America and Russia combined. The dust-induced darkness means the solar-powered rover can’t recharge its batteries.

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2: One Tough Robot

This isn’t the first time Opportunity has had to wait out a massive storm. In 2007, a monthlong series of severe storms filled the Martian skies with dust. Power levels reached critical lows, but engineers nursed the rover back to health when sunlight returned.

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3: Windswept

Martian breezes proved a saving grace for the solar-powered Mars rovers in the past, sweeping away accumulated dust and enabling rovers to recharge and get back to science. This is Opportunity in 2014. The image on the left is from January 2014. The image on the right in March 2014.

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4: Dusty Disappointment

Back in 1971, scientists were eager for their first orbital views of Mars. But when Mariner 9 arrived in orbit, the Red Planet was engulfed by a global dust storm that hid most of the surface for a month. When the dust settled, geologists got detailed views of the Martian surface, including the first glimpses of ancient riverbeds carved into the dry and dusty landscape.

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5: Dramatic License

As bad as the massive storm sounds, Mars isn’t capable of generating the strong winds that stranded actor Matt Damon’s character on the Red Planet in the movie The Martian. Mars’ atmosphere is too thin and winds are more breezy than brutal. The chore of cleaning dusty solar panels to maintain power levels, however, could be a very real job for future human explorers.

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6: Semi-Regular Visitors

Scientists know to expect big dust storms on Mars, but the rapid development of the current one is surprising. Decades of Mars observations show a pattern of regional dust storms arising in northern spring and summer. In most Martian years, nearly twice as long as Earth years, the storms dissipate. But we’ve seen global dust storms in 1971, 1977, 1982, 1994, 2001 and 2007. The current storm season could last into 2019.

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7: Science in the Dust

Dust is hard on machines, but can be a boon to science. A study of the 2007 storm published earlier this year suggests such storms play a role in the ongoing process of gas escaping from the top of Mars’ atmosphere. That process long ago transformed wetter, warmer ancient Mars into today’s arid, frozen planet. Three of our orbiters, the Curiosity rover and international partners are already in position to study the 2018 storm.

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8: Adjusting InSight

Mission controllers for Mars InSight lander–due to land on Mars in November–will be closely monitoring the storm in case the spacecraft’s landing parameters need to be adjusted for safety. 

Once on the Red Planet, InSight will use sophisticated geophysical instruments to delve deep beneath the surface of Mars, detecting the fingerprints of the processes of terrestrial planet formation, as well as measuring the planet’s “vital signs”: Its “pulse” (seismology), “temperature” (heat flow probe), and “reflexes” (precision tracking).

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9: Martian Weather Report

One saving grace of dust storms is that they can actually limit the extreme temperature swings experienced on the Martian surface. The same swirling dust that blocks out sunlight also absorbs heat, raising the ambient temperature surrounding Opportunity.

Track the storm and check the weather on Mars anytime.

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10: Dust: Not Just a Martian Thing

A dust storm in the Sahara can change the skies in Miami and temperatures in the North Atlantic. Earth scientists keep close watch on our home planet’s dust storms, which can darken skies and alter Earth’s climate patterns.

Read the full web version of this article HERE

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Reinventing the Wheel

Planning a trip to the Moon? Mars? You’re going
to need good tires…

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Exploration requires mobility. And whether you’re on Earth
or as far away as the Moon or Mars, you need good tires to get your vehicle
from one place to another. Our decades-long work developing tires for space
exploration has led to new game-changing designs and materials. Yes, we’re
reinventing the wheel—here’s why.

Wheels on the Moon

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Early tire designs were focused on moving hardware and
astronauts across the lunar surface. The last NASA vehicle to visit the Moon
was the Lunar Roving Vehicle during our Apollo
missions
. The vehicle used four large flexible wire mesh wheels with stiff
inner frames. We used these Apollo era tires as the inspiration for new designs
using newer materials and technology to better function on a lunar surface.

Up springs a new idea

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During the mid-2000s, we worked with industry partner
Goodyear to develop the Spring
Tire
, an airless compliant tire that consists of several hundred coiled
steel wires woven into a flexible mesh, giving the tires the ability to support
high loads while also conforming to the terrain. The Spring Tire has been
proven to generate very good traction and durability in soft sand and on rocks.

Spring Tires for Mars

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A little over a year after the Mars Curiosity Rover landed
on Mars, engineers began to notice significant wheel damage in 2013 due to the
unexpectedly harsh terrain. That’s when engineers began developing new Spring Tire
prototypes to determine if they would be a new and better solution for
exploration rovers on Mars.

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In order for Spring Tires to go the distance on Martian
terrain, new materials were required. Enter nickel titanium,
a shape memory alloy with amazing capabilities that allow the tire to deform
down to the axle and return to its original shape.

These tires can take a lickin’

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After building the shape memory alloy tire, Glenn engineers
sent it to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Mars Life Test Facility. It
performed impressively on the punishing track.

Why reinvent the wheel? It’s worth it.

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New, high performing tires would allow lunar and Mars rovers
to explore greater regions of the surface than currently possible. They conform
to the terrain and do not sink as much as rigid wheels, allowing them to carry
heavier payloads for the same given mass and volume. Also, because they absorb
energy from impacts at moderate to high speeds, there is potential for use on
crewed exploration vehicles which are expected to move at speeds significantly
higher than the current Mars rovers.

Airless tires on Earth

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Maybe. Recently, engineers and materials scientists have
been testing a spinoff tire version that would work on cars and trucks on
Earth. Stay tuned as we
continue to push the boundaries on traditional concepts for exploring our world
and beyond.  

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Solar System: 10 Things to Know This Week

Every day, our spacecraft and people are exploring the solar system. Both the public and the private sectors are contributing to the quest. For example, here are ten things happening just this week:

1. We deliver. 

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The commercial space company Orbital ATK is targeting Saturday, Nov. 11 for the launch of its Cygnus spacecraft on an Antares rocket from Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Virginia. Cygnus is launching on a resupply mission to the International Space Station, carrying cargo and scientific experiments to the six people currently living on the microgravity laboratory. 

2. See for yourself. 

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Social media users are invited to register to attend another launch in person, this one of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Dragon spacecraft from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. This launch, currently targeted for no earlier than December, will be the next commercial cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station. The deadline to apply is Nov. 7. Apply HERE.

3. Who doesn’t like to gaze at the Moon?

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Our Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) sure does—and from very close range. This robotic spacecraft has been orbiting Earth’s companion since 2009, returning views of the lunar surface that are so sharp they show the footpaths made by Apollo astronauts. Learn more about LRO and the entire history of lunar exploration at NASA’s newly-updated, expanded Moon site: moon.nasa.gov

4. Meanwhile at Mars…

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Another sharp-eyed robotic spacecraft has just delivered a fresh batch of equally detailed images. Our Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) surveys the Red Planet’s surface daily, and you can see the very latest pictures of those exotic landscapes HERE. We currently operate five—count ‘em, five—active missions at Mars, with another (the InSight lander) launching next year. Track them all at: mars.nasa.gov.

5. Always curious. 

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One of those missions is the Curiosity rover. It’s currently climbing a rocky highland dubbed Vera Rubin Ridge, turning its full array of instruments on the intriguing geology there. Using those instruments, Curiosity can see things you and I can’t.

6. A new Dawn. 

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Our voyage to the asteroid belt has a new lease on life. The Dawn spacecraft recently received a mission extension to continue exploring the dwarf planet Ceres. This is exciting because minerals containing water are widespread on Ceres, suggesting it may have had a global ocean in the past. What became of that ocean? Could Ceres still have liquid today? Ongoing studies from Dawn could shed light on these questions.

7. There are eyes everywhere. 

When our Mars Pathfinder touched down in 1997, it had five cameras: two on a mast that popped up from the lander, and three on the rover, Sojourner. Since then, photo sensors that were improved by the space program have shrunk in size, increased in quality and are now carried in every cellphone. That same evolution has returned to space. Our Mars 2020 mission will have more “eyes” than any rover before it: a grand total of 23, to create sweeping panoramas, reveal obstacles, study the atmosphere, and assist science instruments.

8. Voyage to a hidden ocean.

One of the most intriguing destinations in the solar system is Jupiter’s moon Europa, which hides a global ocean of liquid water beneath its icy shell. Our Europa Clipper mission sets sail in the 2020s to take a closer look than we’ve ever had before. You can explore Europa, too: europa.nasa.gov

9. Flight of the mockingbird. 

On Nov. 10, the main belt asteroid 19482 Harperlee, named for the legendary author of To Kill a Mockingbird, makes its closest approach to Earth during the asteroid’s orbit around the Sun. Details HERE. Learn more about asteroids HERE. Meanwhile, our OSIRIS-REx mission is now cruising toward another tiny, rocky world called Bennu.

10. What else is up this month? 

For sky watchers, there will be a pre-dawn pairing of Jupiter and Venus, the Moon will shine near some star clusters, and there will be meteor activity all month long. Catch our monthly video blog for stargazers HERE.

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Solar System: Things to Know This Week

What’s next for NASA? A quick look at some of the big things coming up:

1. We will add to our existing robotic fleet at the Red Planet with the InSight Mars lander set to study the planet’s interior.

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This terrestrial planet explorer will address one of the most fundamental issues of planetary and solar system science – understanding the processes that shaped the rocky planets of the inner solar system (including Earth) more than four billion years ago.

2. The Mars 2020 rover will look for signs of past microbial life, gather samples for potential future return to Earth.

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The Mars 2020 mission takes the next step by not only seeking signs of habitable conditions on the Red Planet in the ancient past, but also searching for signs of past microbial life itself. The Mars 2020 rover introduces a drill that can collect core samples of the most promising rocks and soils and set them aside in a “cache” on the surface of Mars.

3. The James Webb Space Telescope will be the premier observatory of the next decade, studying the history of our Universe in infrared.

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Webb will study every phase in the history of our Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own solar system.

4. The Parker Solar Probe will “touch the Sun,” traveling closer to the surface than any spacecraft before.

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This spacecraft, about the size of a small car, will travel directly into the sun’s atmosphere about 4 million miles from our star’s surface. Parker Solar Probe and its four suites of instruments – studying magnetic and electric fields, energetic particles, and the solar wind – will be protected from the Sun’s enormous heat by a 4.5-inch-thick carbon-composite heat shield.

5. Our OSIRIS-REx spacecraft arrives at the near-Earth asteroid Bennu in August 2018, and will return a sample for study in 2023.

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This mission will help scientists investigate how planets formed and how life began, as well as improve our understanding of asteroids that could impact Earth.

6. Launching in 2018, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) will search for planets around 200,000 bright, nearby stars.

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The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is the next step in the search for planets outside of our solar system (exoplanets), including those that could support life. The mission will find exoplanets that periodically block part of the light from their host stars, events called transits.

7. A mission to Jupiter’s ocean-bearing moon Europa is being planned for launch in the 2020s.

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The mission will place a spacecraft in orbit around Jupiter in order to perform a detailed investigation of Europa – a world that shows strong evidence for an ocean of liquid water beneath its icy crust and which could host conditions favorable for life.

8. We will launch our first integrated test flight of the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft, known as Exploration Mission-1.

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The Space Launch System rocket will launch with Orion atop it. During Exploration Mission-1, Orion will venture thousands of miles beyond the moon during an approximately three week mission.

9. We are looking at what a flexible deep space gateway near the Moon could be.

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We’ve issued a draft announcement seeking U.S. industry-led studies for an advanced solar electric propulsion (SEP) vehicle capability. The studies will help define required capabilities and reduce risk for the 50 kilowatt-class SEP needed for the agency’s near-term exploration goals.

10. Want to know more? Read the full story.

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Curiosity Rover: Five Years on Mars

The evening of August 5, 2012…five years ago…our Mars Curiosity rover landed on the Red Planet. 

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Arriving at Mars at 10:32 p.m. PDT (morning of Aug 6 EDT), this rover would prove to be the most technologically advanced rover ever built.

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Curiosity used a series of complicated landing maneuvers never before attempted. 

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The specialized landing sequence, which employed a giant parachute, a jet-controlled descent vehicle and a daring “sky crane” maneuver similar to rappelling was devised because testing and landing techniques used during previous rover missions could not safely accommodate the much larger and heavier rover.

Curiosity’s mission: To determine whether the Red Planet ever was, or is, habitable to microbial life.

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The car-size rover is equipped with 17 cameras, a robotic arm, specialized instruments and an on-board laboratory.

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Let’s explore Curiosity’s top 5 discoveries since she landed on Mars five years ago…

1. Gale Crater had conditions suitable for life about 3.5 billion years ago

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In 2013, Curiosity’s analysis of a rock sample showed that ancient Mars could have supported living microbes. Scientists identified sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon – some of the key chemical ingredients for life – in the powder Curiosity drilled out of a sedimentary rock near an ancient stream bed in Gale Crater.

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Later, in 2014, Curiosity discovered that these conditions lasted for millions of years, perhaps much longer. This interpretation of Curiosity’s findings in Gale Crater suggests ancient Mars maintained a climate that could have produced long-lasting lakes at many locations on the Red Planet.

2. Organic molecules detected at several locations

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In 2014, our Curiosity rover drilled into the Martian surface and detected different organic chemicals in the rock powder. This was the first definitive detection of organics in surface materials of Mars. These Martian organics could either have formed on Mars or been delivered to Mars by meteorites. 

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Curiosity’s findings from analyzing samples of atmosphere and rock powder do not reveal whether Mars has ever harbored living microbes, but the findings do shed light on a chemically active modern Mars and on favorable conditions for life on ancient Mars.

3. Present and active methane in Mars’ atmosphere

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Also in 2014, our Curiosity rover measured a tenfold spike in methane, an organic chemical, in the atmosphere around the planet. This temporary increase in methane tells us there must be some relatively localized source.

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Researchers used Curiosity’s onboard Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) laboratory a dozen times in a 20-month period to sniff methane in the atmosphere. During two of those months, in late 2013 and early 2014, four measurements averaged seven parts per billion.

4. Radiation could pose health risks for humans

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Measurements taken by our Curiosity rover since launch have provided us with the information needed to design systems to protect human explorers from radiation exposure on deep-space expeditions in the future. Curiosity’s Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) was the first instrument to measure the radiation environment during a Mars cruise mission from inside a spacecraft that is similar to potential human exploration spacecraft.

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The findings indicate radiation exposure for human explorers could exceed our career limit for astronauts if current propulsion systems are used. These measurements are being used to better understand how radiation travels through deep space and how it is affected and changed by the spacecraft structure itself. This, along with research on the International Space Station are helping us develop countermeasures to the impacts of radiation on the human body.

5. A thicker atmosphere and more water in Mars past

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In 2015, Curiosity discovered evidence that has led scientists to conclude that ancient Mars was once a warmer, wetter place than it is today. 

To produce this more temperate climate, several researchers have suggested that the planet was once shrouded in a much thicker carbon dioxide atmosphere. You may be asking…Where did all the carbon go?

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The solar wind stripped away much of Mars’ ancient atmosphere and is still removing tons of it every day. That said, 3.8 billion years ago, Mars might have had a moderately dense atmosphere, with a surface pressure equal to or less than that found on Earth.

Our Curiosity rover continues to explore the Red Planet today. On average, the rover travels about 30 meters per hour and is currently on the lower slope of Mount Sharp.

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Get regular updates on the Curiosity mission by following @MarsCuriosity on Twitter.

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