Don’t forget about NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity just because its younger cousin is about to land on the Red Planet.
The car-sized Curiosity marked 3,000 Mars days, or sols, on the Red Planet Tuesday (Jan. 12), a mere five weeks before NASA’s Perseverance rover is scheduled to touch down. (A sol is slightly longer than an Earth day, lasting about 24 hours and 40 minutes.)
To celebrate the milestone, the Curiosity team released a gorgeous panorama that the rover captured on Nov. 18, 2020. The photo, which consists of 122 stitched-together images, shows an intriguing series of rock “benches” on the slopes of Mount Sharp, which Curiosity has been climbing since September 2014.
“Our science team is excited to figure out how they formed and what they mean for the ancient environment within Gale,” Curiosity project scientist Ashwin Vasavada, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, said in a statement.
“Gale” is Gale Crater, the 96-mile-wide (154 kilometers) hole in the ground that Curiosity has been exploring since touching down on Aug. 5, 2012. The rover’s observations have shown that the crater hosted a potentially habitable lake-and-stream system in the ancient past, one that likely persisted for millions of years.
Mount Sharp rises about 3.4 miles (5.5 km) into the Martian sky from Gale’s center. Curiosity has been picking its way through the massif’s foothills for more than six years now, looking for clues about the Red Planet’s long-ago transition from a relatively warm and wet world to the cold desert it is today.
Perseverance is scheduled to land on Feb. 18 inside Jezero Crater, which is about 2,300 miles (3,700 km) from Gale. Perseverance is similar to Curiosity in many ways, sharing its basic body plan and dramatic “sky crane” landing strategy. The new rover will do some different work, however, hunting for signs of ancient Mars life within the 28-mile-wide (45 km) Jezero, which harbored a lake and river delta in the ancient past, and collecting samples for future return to Earth, among other tasks.
But Perseverance, the centerpiece of NASA’s $2.7 billion Mars 2020 mission, is still en route to the Red Planet. So take a few minutes to appreciate the job that Curiosity continues to do on the slopes of a mountain far, far from home.
“It’s been an exciting 3,000 sols so far, and I look forward to seeing what else we’ll discover as Curiosity continues to climb Mt. Sharp,” mission team member Lauren Edgar, a planetary geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona, wrote in a blog post on Tuesday. “Tonight I’ll be raising a glass to Curiosity and the science and engineering teams that have gotten us this far!”
Mike Wall is the author of “Out There” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.