This artist's concept depicts the Curiosity rover using its Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument to investigate the composition of a rock surface. ChemCam fires laser pulses at a target and views the resulting spark with a telescope and spectrometers to identify chemical elements. The laser is actually in an invisible infrared wavelength, but is shown here as visible red light for purposes of illustration. NASA/JPL-Caltech
Mars rover Curiosity landed on the red planet one year ago today, so we here at Popular Science figured we’d take a look back at the journey. It’s not an easy trip to summarize, since Curiosity marked a ton of firsts: only the discovery of the Higgs Boson rivaled it for biggest science story of 2012. But in case you need a refresher on just how big of a story the landing was, here’s a reminder, courtesy of Google search trends for “mars curiosity rover”:
The crests roughly correspond to Curiosity’s greatest hits: there’s the landing itself, the result of years of planning and engineering; the scientific analyses, which taught us more about another planet than we’ve ever known; and, man, the photos, which we droolingly awaited to be beamed back home. In all, according to NASA, Curiosity has sent back more than 70,000 images and shot a rock-blasting laser 75,000 times. Not bad, considering it has only gone a mile on its entire journey.
Here are 10 highlights from Curiosity’s first year on Mars, but there were many more we could’ve added, and we’re sure there will be many more to come.
Seven Minutes Of Terror
Technically, we learned about Mars rover Curiosity’s so-called “seven minutes of terror”–when engineers would wait for a transmission from Mars to see if Curiosity had survived its landing–a couple months before Curiosity actually touched down. But that only made Curiosity’s successful landing that much more amazing. (This video is still heart palpitation-inducing, even though we know it all turned out okay.)
The First Images
This picture, and a smaller, similar version that came right after the landing, were the first images Curiosity sent back. Snapped with one of Curiosity’s relatively low-res hazard-avoidance cameras, the image here just barely shows the rim of Gale Crater, the rover’s landing site.
Not too long after landing, Curiosity began trying out its hardware, including the special rock-analyzing ChemCam. The rover picked out a rock formation and delivered a mighty 30 zaps in the span of 10 seconds. (The rock Tweeted back.) More studies with the ChemCam indicated the presence of gypsum, which was early evidence that water once flowed on Mars.
A Once-Flowing Stream
In September of last year, Curiosity discovered a bed of gravel that was once a flowing Martian stream. The stream ran 3 feet per second for years before drying up, and could’ve been up to hip-deep. It was the first time scientists had ever had found a site on Mars where water flowed.
Mars Is Like Hawaii
Curiosity first used its x-ray diffraction tools in October to analyze the Martian soil. Turns out Mars isn’t so different than Hawaii: the minerals and volcanic glass present were similar to what you might find in the Aloha State.
The First Robo-Drilling On Another Planet
Curiosity became the first robot to drill on another planet when it burrowed a hole on Mars in February, going 2.5 inches under the surface. Here’s the history-making hole.
Mars Could’ve Supported Life
A sample of powdered rock Curiosity examined in February contained sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and carbon, which is a solid recipe for keeping microbes alive. That means, a long time ago, Mars at least could have supported life.
A Lot Of Life, Potentially
After those initial findings, NASA soon reported it had definitive evidence that Curiosity was rolling through a spot where water once ran. Not only that, but the area expanded farther than they’d thought. Hydrated “veins” in rocks were discovered, and scientists got this cool photo to prove it.
The 4-Billion-Pixel Panorama
NASA’s work with Curiosity also inspired others to pick up a creative project. Estonian photographer and editor Andrew Bodrov, for example, made a totally unbelievable 4-billion-pixel panorama out of more than 400 images from Curiosity’s two cameras. You can check it out here.
A ‘Catastrophic’ Event On Mars
So what happened to that life? Uh, well, one of Curiosity’s less-positive findings was that a “catastrophic” event (as NASA put it) 4 billion years ago destroyed Mars’s atmosphere. A chemical analysis of gases on the planet revealed that either volcanic eruptions or a massive space collision caused the atmosphere to tear.