Since August 6, 2012, Curiosity has been exploring Mars and analyzing its rocks. NASA’s rover just crossed the 4,000 “sols” of Mars, named after a day on the red planet. An achievement that we mainly owe to the CNES and IRAP teams.
Olivier Gasnault is involved in the design of the ChemCam laser camera and is one of the pioneers of the Curiosity adventure for NASA’s MSL (Mars Science Laboratory) mission. CNRS researcher at IRAP (Toulouse Institute for Research in Astrophysics and Planetology), specialized in the chemical analysis of rocks, he is the scientific manager of ChemCam in France. Valérie Mousset, who arrived in 2014, is among the small circle of operators who fire lasers at the Martian soil from the French Operations Center for Science and Exploration (FOCSE), based at CNES, in Toulouse. She is an MSL project manager. Currently, FOCSE launches the rover’s French instrument control three evenings a week, between 5 p.m. and midnight.
Exceptional discovery on Mars: new clues about the origin of life
Curiosity has just passed the milestone of 4,000 sols (1), more than eleven years after arriving on the planet Mars. How is he doing ?
Olivier Gasnault: It’s doing pretty well for a rover of a certain age! Everything on board works, including things that we did not expect would last so long, such as the instrument for measuring the amount of water in the basement with a neutron generator. As for onboard energy, NASA has also improved battery management so that we can still undertake interesting scientific activities.
Valérie Mousset: The wheels, although damaged quite quickly, are well managed. Curiosity no longer does autonomous navigation, but is programmed based on locations made by satellites. And it stops automatically once the built-in software detects a problem.
31 km covered, 968,000 laser shots
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What has Curiosity done since 2012?
Olivier Gasnault: Curiosity traveled just over 31 kilometers, our ChemCam laser camera shot more than 968,000 times, analyzed more than 3,700 rocks and captured many images. 39 drillings took place and the rover ascended 700 meters, allowing us to see different geological layers and therefore increase our knowledge of the history of Mars. The fantastic thing about this ongoing mission is that we are now in mountainous terrain, which is a sight to behold and which, scientifically speaking, always brings something new.
Valérie Mousset: MSL is a mission that takes time, it is in reality a laboratory brought to Mars to do science, to analyze and understand the context.
Olivier Gasnault: Since 2021 we have been in the territory of sulphates, salt to put it briefly. These are new rocks after the clay at the bottom of the Gale crater, a sign of evaporation, of a drier climate… Curiosity quickly proved that Mars could have been habitable, but the mission also shows that the history of Mars more complicated than ever. we think that with changes in the climate but over longer periods, without a clear transition, we are trying to refine the calendar of events.
“Do better than Opportunity? A great challenge!”
Planet Mars: already a million laser shots on the ground thanks to the Toulouse cameras ChemCam and SuperCam
Do you ever get tired after spending so much time on this mission?
Olivier Gasnault: No, because there is always innovation, also in the team with new generations of researchers. The mission has been extended until September 2025 and we know that activities will decrease with certainly more automation and fewer observations. But we’re thinking about what comes next: MSL’s scientific data must be relevant so it can be used by new generations. If other people pick it up and look at it with fresh eyes, it will be a great success for us.
Do you think Curiosity can do better than the Opportunity rover when it comes to longevity?
Valérie Mousset: The odds have exceeded 5000 sols, more than 15 years of Mars exploration… We still have 1000 sols to beat, it’s a great challenge! But until then, we hope to first celebrate ChemCam’s millionth laser shot, probably around the summer of 2024. We had the honor to very recently welcome the international Curiosity team, 200 people, to Toulouse. It was truly a moment of pride, especially as operations for the other rover, Perseverance, were taking place at the same time in our operations center. We have become NASA’s trusted partners, our instruments and our teams have proven themselves.