Ten Earth years later and Curiosity is still exploring Mars

“We’ve got thumbnails!!” shouted, emotionally, over excited celebrations, is my most intense memory from 10 years ago. I had sat, with a lot of colleagues from my home university, The Open University here in the UK, in a seminar room, NASA TV on the big screen, anxiously watching the proceedings since 6.30 am on the 6th of August. The UK is 8 time zones ahead of Pasadena in California, where it was late at night of the 5th of August as the main events were followed closely on the consoles of the engineers and scientists at JPL. When the message came that “we are safe on Mars!”, we all joined the celebrations. Check out yesterday’s blog written by my colleague Scott vanBommel for the events at JPL. Here in the UK coffee was spilt and tears shed, hugs exchanged.

While most of my colleagues had come along out of interest, I realised at that very moment that I would be part of a mission team, my very first experience of being part of any mission team. While I was contemplating that thought, I heard about the thumbnail, saw the cheers getting even more excited in mission control, and I saw the image that you see on the top left of this blog. To this day, I cannot hear the word thumbnail without thinking that this was the very moment that got me on the mission team and changed my career – and me – forever, making me an explorer of a distant yet so familiar looking world. Little did I know that my first task would be to count pebbles on images of the very first big discovery, a conglomerate on Mars, to get the data to help quantify the nature of the water flow that left this streambed behind.

The past ten years have been amazing. We learned so many things, and I personally grew up as a scientist, and so did so many early career scientists on this mission team. If you want to see some of the reflections, you could start with the poster about the past ten years, which you can find here, and hear from Deputy Project Scientist Abigail Fraeman here. There are many reports everywhere in the media and on social media (say hello on twitter, if you want!), but if you want to know what my personal favourite is, well here it is, especially the fact that Curiosity has measured the age of rocks and their alteration phases on Mars!

At the top, I have also given an image from the very same camera, 3553 sols later, now of course without the dust cover. The terrain is not as flat anymore as we are climbing the mountain, and that is very exciting in terms of beautiful images, which are most importantly also telling us a lot about the geology of the region. But before I try to summarize the story of the traverse from Bradbury Landing via Vera Rubin Ridge through the clay unit towards Gediz Vallis Ridge, I should really get to today’s plan, which is action packed on Curiosity’s anniversary.

Gale crater gave us an anniversary present in the form of a nice, interesting looking and mysterious float rock (here visible in the Navigation Camera image), which Curiosity will investigate intensely to figure out the reason for the mysterious look. Investigations on this block are an APXS and MAHLI investigation on the target “Sloth Island” and ChemCam’s LIBS target name on this block is “Uito.” APXS and MAHLI as well as ChemCam are also investigating the local bedrock on target “Apunguao.” ChemCam has an imaging feast with two long distance RMIs on a target called descriptively “Large Hill” and gets a passive spectral measurement on target “La Fe.”

Mastcam joins the celebrations with several mosaics of the very interesting sedimentary features visible in the walls around us. Two of those mosaics are on the area called “Deepdale” and Mastcam joins ChemCam imaging “La Fe.” Finally, there are stereo images of the float rocks – the one right in front of us and some more in a distance, and a multispectral observation on target “Linden.” We have a set of atmospheric observations in the plan, too.

That’s an action-packed anniversary weekend plan, which also has a drive, post drive imaging, and an automated ChemCam LIBS observation after the drive. While Curiosity is being very busy, the humans here on Earth will celebrate – here is to climbing higher and higher, more exploration – more discoveries and surprises, and the many colleagues who work every day to help the rover achieve all this on Mars! I can only join Scott in saying I look forward to the next ten years!

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