The Mars Curiosity Rover today celebrates the first anniversary of its landing on the Red Planet.
The Nasa rover survived its daredevil landing one year ago today and went on to discover that the planet most like Earth in the solar system could have supported microbial life, the primary goal of the mission.
"The stunning thing is that we found it all so quickly," California Institute of Technology geologist and lead project scientist John Grotzinger said yesterday during a ceremony at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, marking the rover's first anniversary on Mars.
"If you asked me a year ago, 'What are you going to find in the first year?' I wouldn't have ever said we were going to find what we went looking for," added Curiosity scientist Ken Edgett, with Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego.
Now scientists hope to learn whether life-friendly niches on Mars are common and whether any organic carbon has been preserved in the planet's ancient rocks.
To answer those questions, Curiosity is heading to Mount Sharp, a three-mile-high mound of layered sediment rising from the floor of Gale Crater, where the one-ton rover touched down at 1.31am EDT (5.31am GMT) on 6 August 2012.
To land that much weight in such a specific location, engineers devised a complicated descent system that included a never-before-tried hovering platform that gently lowered the rover with tethers onto the planet's surface and then, so it wouldn't land on Curiosity, was directed away to crash-land elsewhere.
The drama, which a Nasa video dubbed "the seven minutes of terror", opened with rocket burns to slow down Curiosity from its 13,000mph interplanetary cruising speed and direct it into the thin Martin atmosphere.
Within seven minutes, the rover dropped from seven times the speed of sound to zero, shedding a heat shield, parachutes and the hovering platform in the process.
"I've probably seen that video 100 times in the last year and you still think about how you felt that night, still in wonderment that it really did what it did," said Nasa project manager Pete Theisinger.
Rather than heading first to Mount Sharp, scientists decided to explore a region that showed tell-tale signs of past flowing water. Drilling into a piece of bedrock, the rover found all the chemicals needed to support simple microbial life, such as microorganisms that rely on chemicals rather than sunlight, for energy.
"It all added up to an understanding of this environment as being chemically favourable for life; not in a harsh way, but actually quite a benign environment that is very much like Earth," Grotzinger said.
Curiosity will be joined next year by another Nasa robotic probe called MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution), which will remain in orbit to assess how and why the planet is losing its atmosphere.
MAVEN's data will be combined with on-going studies by Curiosity, Nasa's long-lived Mars rover Opportunity, and a trio of orbiters including the European Space Agency's Mars Express, to better understand how a planet that seemed to start off so much like Earth ended up so different.
The spacecraft arrived at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida last Friday and is now perched in a cleanroom to undergo detailed testing and fuelling prior to being moved to its launch pad in preparation for the mission’s 20-day launch period that opens on 18 November.
Over the weekend, the team confirmed the spacecraft arrived in good condition. They removed the spacecraft from the shipping container and secured it to a rotation fixture in the cleanroom.
In the next week, the team will reassemble components previously removed for transport. Further checks prior to launch will include software tests, spin balance tests, and test deployments of the spacecraft's solar panels and booms.
"It's always a mix of excitement and stress when you ship a spacecraft down to the launch site," said Guy Beutelschies, MAVEN programme manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, which designed and built the spacecraft and is responsible for testing, launch processing, and mission operations.
"It's similar to moving your children to college after high school graduation. You're proud of the hard work to get to this point, but you know they still need some help before they're ready to be on their own."