U-M celebrates Curiosity’s first year on the Red Planet

August 1, 2013
  • umichnews@umich.edu

ANN ARBOR—Sushil Atreya and Nilton Renno, both professors of planetary and space science at the University of Michigan College of Engineering, have intimate connections with NASA’s Curiosity rover, which has been exploring Mars since Aug. 6, 2012.

As the mission marks the end of its first year on the Martian surface, Atreya and Renno have plenty to say about Curiosity’s performance, its remarkable findings and how the mission is changing scientists’ perceptions of the solar system’s only planet with Earth-like qualities.

Atreya, an expert on the solar system’s chemistry and evolution, helped put the Curiosity mission together from its earliest stages and has been a co-investigator on the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM), the cornerstone lab aboard Curiosity (formally called the Mars Science Laboratory, or MSL). He can be reached at atreya@umich.edu.

Renno has been involved in monitoring Martian weather and assessing whether the environmental conditions are suitable for life. He can be reached at nrenno@umich.edu.

U-M’s Space Physics Research Lab built the computer controls of the SAM instruments, all of which have performed precisely as its designers had hoped—some would say better than they have hoped.

“Curiosity is the most complex, most sophisticated piece of engineering ever to land and operate on another planetary surface,” Atreya said. “Science-wise, the rover has performed fabulously— it’s been flawless.”

What lies ahead for Curiosity might be a lot more than anyone currently expects. The roverhas performed so well that NASA is considering an indefinite extension of the two-year mission, saying it could last as long as 55 years.The nuclear-powered rover has enough plutonium on board to last that long—perhaps longer.