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Curiosity's first year on Mars: Where's the science?

Posted by Emily Lakdawalla

07-08-2013 14:53 CDT

Topics: mission status, Curiosity (Mars Science Laboratory)

Yesterday was the first anniversary of Curiosity's landing on Mars, and there was much rejoicing. It's been fun to look back at that exciting day, and it's been an opportunity to reflect on what Curiosity has accomplished in her first year.

Most of the social conversation is positive, but there's a consistent undercurrent that's not so positive: what has Curiosity accomplished, really? She's been on Mars for a year, driven a kilometer and a half, drilled two holes. What does the mission have to show for all this time and all the effort and all the money that it took to get Curiosity there? Where's the science? I hear this from a few members of the public, but I've been hearing it a lot from other scientists.

I'll be defending Curiosity below, but I'll begin by agreeing that there's not much science to show yet -- at least not compared to what we are going to get. In the last few days, I've seen several mission scientists and engineers respond to questions like: what has Curiosity's biggest accomplishment been so far? And pretty much everybody has answered that the mission's greatest scientific accomplishment to date is that it has shown Mars was habitable -- that there was a time when there was an environment with liquid water at a friendly pH that persisted for at least a little while. The habitable environment is the one that created the flat-lying, fine-grained rocks visible at Yellowknife Bay.

Curiosity panorama at

NASA / JPL / MSSS / Damia Bouic

Curiosity panorama at "Grandma's House," sol 137
On sol 137 (December 24, 2012), Curiosity sat inside a depression named "Yellowknife Bay." The "shore" of Yellowknife Bay is a layer of rock that makes a distinctive step down. This view is composed of left Mastcam (Mastcam-34) images.

So Curiosity has found rocks that record habitable environments on Mars. This is awesome. But, with much respect to all my friends on the Curiosity mission and to the rover herself, they really doesn't deserve credit for that discovery. They didn't up and discover this environment -- surprise, look what we found! -- after the rover landed on Mars. It's the people who picked the landing site who made that discovery. Those people include many members of the Curiosity science team, but it was led by outsiders, and included the entire community of Mars scientists. Curiosity confirmed the habitable environment, and ground truthing is important, but it's not so much a discovery as a massive relief that the people who are interpreting the orbital data know what they are talking about.

In fact, that's really what we've learned so far: that after five decades of work we are really beginning to get Mars. It's a complicated place. The Mariner and Viking missions had shown us that Mars was a fascinating world that had once seen liquid water, but was so heavily cratered that it must be long dead. It was possible that there was just one paroxysm of wetness on a world otherwise as dead as the Moon. Mars Global Surveyor ushered in a much more nuanced view of Mars' history -- it showed us a world with a lengthy and varied geologic history, one that didn't have a one-way arrow from "Earth-like" to "blah." Mars had regional geology, different stories in different places, different amounts of water and weather acting differently on different rocks on different time scales. Did any of these places host conditions that could support life?

We honed our questions, and sent new spacecraft with new instruments designed to get around the dust that obscures much of Mars' surface and search for rocks that could tell us about past water. After the debacles of Mars Polar Lander and Mars Climate Orbiter, we got Odyssey, and then Spirit and Opportunity and Mars Express. Each one of these brought on new capabilities, building on Mars Global Surveyor's success to show us different ways in which Mars had been more interesting, more diverse, wetter, but only in certain places, in very ancient rocks. When Phoenix landed, it proved that we understood what Odyssey and Mars Express had been telling us, that the water that had once flowed across Mars' surface was now lurking, just beneath the red dust on its surface. And that the chemistry of Mars' rocks did very interesting things when wet.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was truly revolutionary. Its HiRISE camera and CRISM spectrometer gave us a view of Mars that's more detailed, really, than what we have even on our own planet. Our own world's geology is mostly obscured by inconvenient oceans or hidden under a moldy crust of plant and animal matter. Mars' geologic story is often hiding under windblown dust, but wherever the wind removes dust, rather than deposits it, we see its rocks laid bare. Odyssey showed us where those spots were, and Mars Express examined them and found chemical beacons. We targeted those places with Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. In some of them, we could see beautiful layered rocks in HiRISE, in the same places that CRISM told us there were sedimentary minerals: clays, sulfates, salts. These minerals need water to form. We know Mars has energy, we know it receives carbon compounds from space, and with the HiRISE and CRISM discoveries of layered rocks bearing water-rich minerals, we knew there had been environments where all three existed in the same place. Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter achieved a major goal of the Curiosity mission before the rover had even launched.

Which is great, because with the confidence that we were going to be sending the rover to the right kind of place, we could then refine our questions further. What were these watery environments like? Clement or not? Long-lasting, or not? If they were nice places that could've supported life for a long time, are they the kinds of rocks that might record ancient life, or would fragile organic material have been destroyed in the rock-making process? Curiosity's landing site was selected through a process open to the entire Mars scientific community, drawing on five decades of orbital and landed data, to answer these open questions. Ultimately, she was sent to a place where we saw sedimentary rocks and sedimentary minerals in CRISM and HiRISE data from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter: Gale crater.

There were actually several places Curiosity could've gone to find these things. It was pretty much guaranteed, then, that Curiosity would land in a place where she would "discover" evidence for a habitable environment. So I'm not giving the Curiosity team credit for that one. I'm just thanking them and breathing a huge sigh of relief that we seem to understand the orbital data well enough to have gotten that right. It's surprisingly rare, in planetary science, to be right.

Gale crater

NASA / JPL / MSSS / Tanya Harrison

Gale crater
A mosaic of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Context Camera images covering all of Gale crater. The whole crater is about 150 kilometers in diameter.

What else have we learned from Curiosity in the last year? There are four peer-reviewed scientific papers that have come out of the mission so far, all published in Science. One concerns radiation levels experienced during cruise. One discusses the conglomerate rocks Curiosity saw near the landing site, which required running water to form. Two discuss the isotopes of elements in atmospheric gases. Many scientists I've talked to have been underwhelmed. Is this all there is?

Oh my goodness, no. We haven't even started yet.

There are three reasons we haven't started yet. There's one that you can justifiably be annoyed about. But the other two explain why you're going to have to wait for the science, and also why the wait will be so, so worth it.

Reason #1: They weren't ready to do all the science (or driving) when Curiosity landed.

They are still, now, a year into the mission, bringing new capabilities online. For example, the rover's top one-day driving record to date is just over 100 meters. The most common distance these days is around 60. Curiosity's predecessor Opportunity, working with more sophisticated autonomous navigation software but one gimpy ankle and wheels only half the diameter of Curiosity's, has achieved more than 170 meters in a single sol. There's no reason Curiosity can't do better, and they're working toward enabling the same software features in Curiosity that have been installed on Opportunity. But they couldn't do that and work through all of the first-time activities of the soil and rock sampling challenges at the same time. Curiosity can do more, a lot more, than Spirit or Opportunity could, but each of its capabilities has to be laboriously tested and verified before it can be used on Mars, and time moves at the same rate for all rovers.

Still, the mission could have been more ready with the software needed for operations before they landed, with a lot more time spent with the testbed model of Curiosity back on Earth. (That rover's name is "Maggie," by the way.) Several people have told me that, in the time before landing, the mission chose to shift engineers away from the development of landed operational capability, toward ensuring that the landing would succeed. It's hard to fault them for that, but it's frustrating to have the most capable-ever robot sitting on the surface of Mars for a year and not be able to use it to its fullest. We'll get there, with time. Depending on what you call "there." They may never stop developing new capabilities for this awesome machine. They're still coming up with new tricks for Opportunity.

Reason #2: Curiosity is not where the science is going to happen -- yet.

We're actually lucky to have the one geology paper we've got so far. Unlike all previous landed Mars missions, Curiosity was always expected to land in a not-very-interesting place (modulated, of course, by the fact that it's on Mars) but within reach of a much more interesting place than we've ever seen before. Curiosity's legendarily complex landing system was designed to allow the landing site selection committee to pick a small flat spot that was safe to land in, located near some dramatic geology that was completely unsafe for landing. Curiosity is the first Mars lander that had this luxury.

At Gale crater, it's never been about doing science right at the landing zone. The cool stuff is located outside the "landing ellipse," the safe zone in which Curiosity set down. We have to wait for Curiosity to exit the landing zone before she enters the science zone. So you can continue to be frustrated about it taking Curiosity a long time to exit the landing zone for reason #1, but not about the fact that the vast majority of the rocks we're going to be seeing for the next several kilometers of driving are scientifically boring. This was how the mission was going to be, all along.

It's time to drive, drive, drive. I know it must be making some science team members crazy not to be stopping and poking at this or that bright or dark or otherwise unusual-looking rock. But the jumbled cobbles of uncertain provenance that Curiosity is now driving by will not be terribly rich scientifically. Not compared to the stuff at the base of the mountain. At least, that's what the orbital data is telling us. We must hope we're right about that. Curiosity's confirmation that there was a habitable environment here suggests that we're right about that, so it's worth it to hit the road.

Curiosity's landing ellipse

NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/MSSS

Curiosity's landing ellipse
A "+" marks the spot within Gale crater at which Curiosity was targeted. Considering all the uncertainties inherent in the landing, engineers were confident it would land within the black ellipse, which is 20 kilometers long and 7 kilometers wide. Gale crater is 154 kilometers wide.

Reason #3: Curiosity is not a flyby mission.

Let me explain what I mean by that. When you don't know anything about a new world, just zipping past it and shooting a few photos completely changes our scientific understanding. That kind of reconnaissance has been done for Mars. There will be moments of "flyby science," like when Curiosity drove right past a rock that clearly contained river-rounded pebbles. She didn't even need to take out her robotic arm (which was good, because she couldn't use it yet; see reason #1). That's an instant discovery that could be turned right into a peer-reviewed paper and published in Science as soon as they did their due diligence describing what they found and explaining the context (nothing like it had been seen on Mars before, but there are plenty of analogs on Earth), and the implications (there were streams here, ankle-to-hip-deep, running for several kilometers). Whenever I'm asked what Curiosity's greatest scientific accomplishment to date is, I talk about these running rivers on Mars. (And how it's funny that it's the second place off of Earth where we've found rounded river rocks, the first being Titan.)

However, almost none of Curiosity's science is going to come so easily. What Curiosity has to do now is to perform a geologic survey and figure out the stratigraphy. What are the rocks here? What are they over there? Is it the same sequence over here as over there, or different? What are the rocks made of now? Is it the same suite of minerals that were there when the rocks were laid down, or have they changed? What are the natures of the contacts that separate the different rock layers? Are they gradational, or are there gaps? How big of a gap is it -- how much time is missing from the record? How has the whole package of rocks been altered physically or chemically since it formed? Was there more than one episode of geologic change? When did that alteration happen? Curiosity has to drive on all the rocks to tell their story. This will not be a fast process. It will take time, and it will be an awful lot of fun to pick up the clues.

We've gotten a preview of how this is going to work with Oppportunity. After three years of roving across the (formerly) trackless wastes of Meridiani Planum, Opportunity arrived at a region of wholly new geology. Opportunity proceeded by doing what any good field geologist would do: she performed a survey of the available outcrops, an initial reconnaissance and circuit of the rocks, and then zeroed in on a few key locations for detailed examination. That process took most of two years. I've only seen one peer-reviewed publication out about that phase of the mission so far. Now Opportunity is arriving at the next bit of Endeavour's rim, Solander Point. I fully expect it to be two years again before we begin to see peer-reviewed publications about this new place. And a lot of the early conclusions in those first papers will turn out to be wrong, or at least to need refinement in subsequent work. We'll be seeing results of the current phase of the Opportunity mission coming out for many years to come. The same will be true of Curiosity, once she's had a chance to do her fieldwork. But she's only just begun the last leg of her long trip from port Kennedy to her field site.

At Monday's celebratory event at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, project scientist John Grotzinger remarked that it may well take until the end of the nominal mission, a year from now, for Curiosity to get to those exciting-looking rocks at the foot of the mountain. The views will be awesome, and we can hope that there will be some instant discoveries, some flyby science that jumps out at us in the images of those rocks like the river-rounded pebbles did. But the real scientific payoff will not begin to come until Curiosity has spent years studying those rocks. Not to mention the fact that any results from Curiosity's fiendishly complex gas chromatograph mass spectrometer can't really be trusted until they've been experimentally reproduced in the laboratory back on Earth.

So, for all the scientists who are looking over the Curiosity team's shoulders, asking "are we there yet?" The answer is "no" and maybe also "sit down and be quiet." We have a long, long way to go. It's going to be a grueling road trip, with not a lot of scientific reward along the way.

When I was a kid, growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, my dad used to take me and my brother on these amazing summer road trips. We'd go west to the Rocky Mountains, and spend weeks seeing canyons and pueblos and mines and peaks and rock shops and art galleries. I loved those trips, but the first day was hard. When you're starting in east Texas, it doesn't matter whether you head for the pueblos and canyons of New Mexico or the mines and mountains of Colorado; you still have five hundred miles of west Texas to get through, five hundred miles of Big Sky Country, open land dotted only occasionally with cows, mesquite trees, very lonely farms, "towns" consisting of a truck stop and a Dairy Queen, and rare pronghorn antelope. It has its own special beauty, and driving through it a half dozen times has given me a real appreciation for how vast and mostly empty our country is. But there's nothing much to stop for, and you wouldn't want to anyway, because any stop just delays your arrival at the sights that it's really worth getting out of the car to see.

That's the phase of the mission that Curiosity is in right now. Amazing sights await us. Spectacular landscapes, and rocks older than anything we've ever touched on Mars before. They'll tell us a long, long story, and it will take us a long time to figure out what that story is. Hopefully it will be a thrilling one. But first, we've got to get there.

Mount Sharp (Mastcam-100 panorama, sol 45)

NASA / JPL / MSSS

Mount Sharp (Mastcam-100 panorama, sol 45)
Mount Sharp, also called Aeolis Mons, is a layered mound in the center of Mars' Gale Crater, rising more than 5 kilometers above the crater floor, where Curiosity has been working since the rover's landing in August 2012. Lower slopes of Mount Sharp are the major destination for the mission.
 
See other posts from August 2013

 

Or read more blog entries about: mission status, Curiosity (Mars Science Laboratory)

Comments:

Mark Elowitz: 08/07/2013 04:07 CDT

It does seem that the MSL science team is not very forthcoming with science results, probably because all the MSL mission is doing is providing "ground truth" data for what we already know from the orbiting imaging spectrometer, CRISM, and other sensors aboard the MRO. Again, it appears that NASA is taking far to many intermediate steps in exploring Mars, given the tight budget constrain that will continue to face the planetary science community. I have found actual science data from various MSL sensors in the PDS archive, so one can look at the results obtained earlier in the mission. Rovers are simply to slow in collecting and analyzing data. I believe a good field geologist could do the equivalent work of what Mars rover do in a year, in about 1 day or so. NASA really needs to concentrate almost all of their efforts into sensing a manned mission to Mars, if they are ever going to answer the question on whether or not past or present life existed/exists on Mars. NASA should have also refined their targeting to a site much closer to Aeolis Mons to greatly reduce the amount of driving time needed just to reach the primary target. This will require taking more chances for future targeting of Mars rovers. The longer you have to drive the greater the probability of something going wrong before you even reach the primary exploration site, but then again, if we had a manned crew on the surface of Mars it would increase the likelihood of achieving the science goals over a much shorter period of time.

Emily Lakdawalla: 08/07/2013 05:37 CDT

Ugh -- "probably because all the MSL mission is doing is providing "ground truth" data for what we already know" -- that is exactly opposite what I was trying to say in this post. MSL will do so much more than that, but she hasn't gotten to the place where she can perform her science mission yet. I argue that landing Curiosity on Mars was one of the most difficult things that humans have ever accomplished. We will accomplish greater things, eventually. I am patient enough to wait for Curiosity to get to the mountain to do science, but not patient enough to wait for a lengthy human mission to Mars to do field geology.

Sarah Milkovich: 08/07/2013 06:40 CDT

In my opinion, it is a stretch to say that we knew Gale would be habitable based on MRO data (and I work for MRO and the HiRISE camera, so I'm a big fan!). Habitability requires liquid water, favorable conditions, raw compounds, and availability of free energy. From orbit, we knew that several of these components (especially liquid water) were almost certainly present, but I am pretty sure we had no way to know if all of them were present. For me, the most exciting result is the exploitable energy gradient represented by the presence of oxidized, non-oxidized, and partially-oxidized versions of the same chemicals all in a single drill sample - that's a hugely important result, and something that we wouldn't be able to detect from orbit.

Sarah Milkovich: 08/07/2013 06:46 CDT

(I would like to add that I'm not an astrobiologist though I've recently been hanging out with some, and if there's one lurking to please chime in.)

Emily Lakdawalla: 08/07/2013 07:05 CDT

And here I thought I was defending you orbital scientists :) There's no paper out yet on the energy gradient stuff, and I, too, am decidedly not an astrobiology expert so I am unable to bring contextual knowledge to bear on the information included in the press release. I formed the impression that habitability was already guaranteed based upon what I heard at landing site selection workshops -- I thought they said it was pretty much a given at all four potential sites. And that they could no longer use habitability potential to discriminate among the possible landing sites, so they were shifting to preservation potential instead. I'll have to wait for the habitability paper to come out to see how many of my words I am going to have to eat! Or for an astrobiologist to chime in to this argument and tell me straight away.

Enzo: 08/07/2013 07:56 CDT

"I believe a good field geologist could do the equivalent work of what Mars rover do in a year, in about 1 day or so. NASA really needs to concentrate almost all of their efforts into sensing a manned mission to Mars," Yes, a field geologist would be much faster but at $100B+ for a Mars mission, it's unlikely to happen anytime soon. Besides, since there is no USSR to show who's boss any longer, what if such mission doesn't find past/present life ? Who's going to tell the voters that after $100B+ spent ? And, if robots find past/present life first, the rationale for such mission would be greatly reduced because if you have found it, then it's much easier to send a sample return mission to fetch it. Also, while the human Mars mission is discussed as something always far in the future, robotics advances greatly, diminishing the gap with human's capabilities while the cost stays the same. I can't see a human mission to Mars earlier than the late '30s. You can bet that robotics will be a lot more advanced than now. Finally, if you really had $100B+ to spend on planetary science, I'd rather have 50-100 robotic missions with an average cost of $2-1 B each through the solar system instead. Mars sample return, Venus lander and ultraviolet adsorbed sample, Enceladus plume sample return, Uranus/Neptune orbiter, atmospheric probe and moon lander, Europa and Titan exploration, etc. etc. From the scientific point of view, there would be no comparison with the returned knowledge.

Dylan Maulucci: 08/07/2013 08:34 CDT

Notwithstanding that I have to completely read and digest the above blog, what about the Viking mission that dug up the soil? What happened with that result?

IslandWolf: 08/08/2013 12:44 CDT

I agree completely, Enzo. We've only just scratched the surface of what robots can achieve on other worlds, and we can send out armies of them for the same price as one human mission. If they apply some of the driving technology developed by DARPA and Google into future rovers, a lot of ground could be covered. And not just ground - some sort of plane or airship that could jump from target to target would greatly increase the science returned. My biggest issue with these robotic missions is the poor communication. There is so much more that could be done to engage youth and the general public. Thank goodness we have people like Emily to instill some enthusiasm and enlightenment to the boring data and information releases!

Ethan Walker: 08/08/2013 01:43 CDT

An excellent summary as usual Emily, I can always count on you to leave off the sugar coating, and with a mission like this who needs it anyways? But I certainly sympathize with the impatience, now she is actually moving again, I start to get antsy whenever she stops for more than a day or two.

Ethan Walker: 08/08/2013 01:57 CDT

Dylan: As I understand it, you can still find arguments ongoing about what the viking results mean, but I think the most important thing we learned from them is how hard it is to design experiments that will return meaningful results about difficult questions if you don't have a good basic understanding of the environment in the first place. Perhaps this is overstating the case, but I think that the confusion over those results explains a lot about the slow, sequential series of increasingly sophisticated missions that have been launched since viking.

Paul McCarthy: 08/08/2013 02:14 CDT

Enzo and IslandWolf sum up the Manned/Robotic equation beautifully. To truly give a field geologist/astronaut the mobility and capability to outdo what Curiosity can do, as opposed to just a couple of days right beside the lander, would cost double again the $100Bn mentioned, with so many different probabilities of lethal eventualities that it would be completely unacceptable for a government funded mission. What these rovers are doing, and going to do, in short order, is amazing. We just need more of them, to more destinations, as Enzo lists.

Paul Stone: 08/08/2013 05:11 CDT

Will Curiosity actually be able to complete its mission objectives within the 2 year primary mission? It seems like after the longevity of the MER rovers the scientists are assuming that Curiosity will also last many, many times it's original warranty. Hopefully that will be the case, but it will be very disappointing if Curiosity's wheels fall off after 2 years and she's not even reached the base of Mount Sharp.

Torbj??rn Larsson: 08/08/2013 09:27 CDT

Regarding the discussion on manned vs robotic exploration, I think it is prudent to include Crawford's paper from Astronomy and Geophysics (also http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1203/1203.6250.pdf ). Abstract: "There is a widely held view in the astronomical community that unmanned robotic space vehicles are, and will always be, more efficient explorers of planetary surfaces than astronauts (e.g. Coates, 2001; Clements 2009; Rees 2011). Partly this is due to a common assumption that robotic exploration is cheaper than human exploration (although, as we shall see, this isn’t necessarily true if like is compared with like), and partly from the expectation that continued developments in technology will relentlessly increase the capability, and reduce the size and cost, of robotic missions to the point that human exploration will not be able to compete. I will argue below that the experience of human exploration during the Apollo missions, more recent field analogue studies, and trends in robotic space exploration actually all point to exactly the opposite conclusion." So maybe there is an urban myth that robotic crafts are cheaper. In the current situation it will take decades for manned missions to catch up, if it is deemed that the investment is useful (broaden exploration bandwidth, potentially maximizing ROI), that goes without saying.

Stephen Uitti: 08/08/2013 10:12 CDT

Emily does an incredible job at explaining the science and excitement, not just for Curiosity, but in the entire solar system. And though NASA has an outreach program, it appears to be goverened by politics. There isn't a stupider way to go about doing anything. That's why i support the Planetary Society, despite unusually difficult financial times. That's why i spend time doing astronomy outreach at local star parties. That's why i spend time doing really basic astronomy science outreach via a local monthly TV show. Humans vs. robots. At the moment, i'm not convinced that we've solved the issues requried to send people to Mars. Radiation and gravity have been investigated but not solved. I'm not convinced that $100b will get people to Mars and back alive. I'd be more willing to back a closer destination in the near term, with the caveat that progress is made on these issues. I recently talked to an astronaut who is also a geologist. Visiting a rock at Earth-Moon L1 is sounding pretty cool.

Dennis Demcheck: 08/09/2013 09:11 CDT

Great post! Many thanks to Emily (today and over time) for consistently addressing the questions I have, but as an armchair astromomer I am usually too intimidated to ask. Also, great article Emily in the September 2013 Sky & Telescope about the significance of liquid water on Mars. I read it twice.

Cesare Guaita (Milano Planetarium): 08/12/2013 02:23 CDT

In my opinion there is some confusion about of the organic analyses made by SAM up to now. After the similar results from Rocknest and John Klein (O2-perclorate, H2O, CO2, SO2, together with CH3Cl and CH2Cl2) no other information arised from Cumberland (or other sites). A possible pollution by MTBSTFA was also described during the 44° LPSC. Emily, have you some information about the latest analytical results (Cumberland ?, other sites? ), about the situation of the MTBSTFA pollution (confirmed ?, eliminated?). People strongly would know what is the real situation of the SAM organic analytical work, but no informatipon arised since many months. Thanks a lot, Emily, for your great summary above and also for your opinion on the SAM subject

Emily Lakdawalla: 08/12/2013 01:55 CDT

Cesare, I think you're right that there's confusion due to lack of information. This is typical for the period before a publication comes out -- they have to keep everything close to the vest in order to submit an article to Science or Nature. I know that more papers are on the pay to publication, but I don't know if one on the SAM results at Cumberland is one of them or if we will have to wait longer for that. Certainly there will be some news at the upcoming Geological Society of America and American Geophysical Union meetings in October and December.

John Ackerman: 08/15/2013 01:17 CDT

Emily is valiantly struggling to explain the lack of true science, but she can only write about what the scientists reveal. One piece of data that seems to have been 'withheld' by the Curiosity team are the 13C isotope ratios for the soil and rock drilling samples. We hear nothing about these. If vegetation proliferated on the planet, this would be reflected in the delta 13C values of approximately -20 in the drilling samples. I suggest this has been found and not reported because the C-team cannot explain it. It is true, the high concentration of 13C in the atmosphere implies its loss, but that this happened billions of years ago and took millions of years, is only a hypothesis, and should be stated as such.

chris_burke: 08/15/2013 10:36 CDT

One thing to keep in mind is that when Curiosity left Yellow Knife Bay it was still carrying drilled soil in its sample handling mechanism; at the last press conference just before leaving they said this was so they could get driving while still having opportunities to study the sample. It's possible they're still running experiments! So I wouldn't get too upset over the lack of additional geochemistry results. It sounds very difficult figuring out what they hope to figure out.

John Ackerman: 08/16/2013 08:17 CDT

Chris, I thought they picked up a soil sample from the surface before they drilled the rock. If so, there were no reports on that sample either. I realize your wording is unintentional, but suggests they are having difficulty getting data that agrees with what they already believe. To already have decided what the answer is and trying to find a corroboration in the data, is not the true sceintific method.

Michael Mann: 08/16/2013 10:02 CDT

Space exploration does not have a bottomless pit of money in order for funds to be wasted in this way, there are many other worthy projects that have not been approved due to a lack of funding such as the Titan Saturn System Mission. I cannot believe the excuses being put up for the lack of science coming from Curiosity "they weren't ready to do the science when it landed"?????? " was always expected to land in a not so interesting place???? Why the hell land there then ??? What's the point of the landing succeeding if your not going to get what your going there for??? Value for money, opportunity cost, bang for your buck do any of these phrases come up in your meetings, what exactly where you guys celebrating at your celebratory event?? The public & tax payer expect better I'm afraid, really disappointing

chris_burke: 08/16/2013 12:19 CDT

John: I'm talking about the drilled samples from Yellow Knife. They left for Mt. Sharp with a lot of that sample still inside Curiosity but not yet delivered to SAM and CheMin. They use a very small amount of sample in each experiment, but they have a LOT of different experiments they want to run with these very powerful and complicated machines. It's quite possible that they wanted to get driving before finishing them all. And what they are trying to figure out is the answer to QUESTIONS. Like "does the soil contain evidence of organics" or "what does the crystal structure indicate was the formation method?" And these are not easy questions, *especially* since they want to be very careful to avoid arriving at false conclusions. They've described the process of determining if organics are present (and when they formed, how, etc) and it's a very complicated and rigorous process to check for all the ways in which a signal might show up but not indicate what you might think. And if that's the case, that's the case. That's what "figure out" means. If my wording implied to you that they are trying to arrive, by any means necessary, at a pre-determined conclusion, then I would look to your own biases. Michael: The interesting place that they wanted to study was Mt. Sharp. The landing site itself was not expected to be interesting *except* that it is nearby to Mt. Sharp. They cannot land the rover literally on Mt. Sharp, so they had to land near enough to reach it, but far enough to be sure they wouldn't smack into it. This was only possible because of the new landing method; previous rovers did not have this option. Mt. Sharp is what they're going there for. And thanks to the succesful landing, they are likely going to reach it. Emily explained this quite clearly. I don't know how you misinterpreted her to mean that we deliberately landed Curiosity where there was nothing for it to learn, ever.

chris_burke: 08/16/2013 12:24 CDT

John: I meant to say that I know (because John Grotzinger said so) that they wanted to get driving before finishing all the experiments on the last drill sample. It's quite possible that they still haven't completed all of them. Oh, and they did do a report on the soil scooping they did at Rocknest. You must have missed it. You can go back through the Ustream Curiosity archive to find the press/tele-conferences, or go through JPL's MSL mission page image archive to see some of the CheMin X-Ray diffraction images of that sample.

Michael Mann : 08/18/2013 09:15 CDT

Chris: At a cost of $2.5billion I would argue this mission has been poorly planned, what we have so far is an RC car on Mars whilst this may be fun for Emily & her colleagues for those of us awaiting solid science results this is not good enough. Curiosity has already been on Mars for over a year it has not even begun its journey to Mt Sharp this journey when it does finally get under way is expected to take 8-9 months up to a year if it stops to "look" @ something interesting along the way (which it's unlikely to find considering Emily confirmed she "always expected to land in a not so interesting place") remembering the missions objectives to investigate conditions favourable for microbial life & evidence of past life & in light of the fact that it is a 2 year mission how much science will be done when Curiosity does eventually get to Mt Sharp? it's a bit much to just hope Curiosity will continue on past its schedule time on Mars like spirit & opportunity did & if it runs into deep soft sand like spirit did or encounters any other problems it won't even make it to Mt Sharp so as you say thanks to a successful landing they are "likely" going to reach it, if they don't all u have is a great big RC car on Mars, if Mt Sharp was always what they where going for don't land so far from your objective its Mars after all there are a hell of a lot of variables that come with exploring this planet it shouldn't take 2 years to reach your objective, don't get me wrong i agree totally with what the mission is trying to achieve but as I stated earlier its been poorly planned its almost as if a bunch of amateurs are playing with $2.5b & once again I say funding for space exploration is far from infinite people making decisions in this area should be far more wise in order to maximise the scientific data we get from our missions to the planets sadly on the evidence so far this doesn't seem to be the case

chris_burke: 08/19/2013 11:19 CDT

Michael: Actually it has begun the journey to Mt. Sharp, more than doubling the odometer reading since leaving Yellow Knife Bay. It's possible nothing "interesting" will be found on the way, though that's always relative to what they hope to find at Mt. Sharp. Already in this "uninteresting" landing site has provided several unique observations about Mars, and as a consequence one of MSL's major science goals has already been met. And "don't land so far from your objective"? I feel like you still haven't read the blog post you're commenting on. As Emily explained (and I repeated in the post you're replying to, and am now repeating *again*), the only reason they were able to get *this* close is because of the new landing system used by MSL. Previous rovers would have had to avoid the entirety of Gale Crater, forget the foot of Mt. Sharp. Being a true professional means being careful with the $2.5billion instrument and working methodically and rigorously -- that's *how* you get missions that last for a decade. Not being cavalier and impatient. There's always risk in a mission like this, but impatience just exacerbates that risk. In short, if they ran the mission as you'd like, the odds of failure would be drastically higher.

Patrick Cornell: 08/20/2013 08:01 CDT

Sorry, but it also seems to me that all the MSL mission is doing is providing ground truth data for what we already know, Chris I think Michael's point of spending over 2 billion dollars on this is a valid one, all most of us general members of the public want to know is has there ever been past life on Mars or are current conditions favourable for microbial life, could this mission have been better planned in order to answer these questions could another location have been chosen other than Mt Sharp 2 years does seem an awful long time to reach your objective anything could happen in that time especially on Mars.

Nada Petrovic: 08/23/2013 06:00 CDT

I had such high hopes this mission would finally answer the question of whether there had ever been past life on Mars very underwhelming so far Emily

Emily Lakdawalla: 08/23/2013 06:04 CDT

Long before the mission landed, even before the landing site was selected, there was a concern that there would be a public relations problem in that it would take a long time to get to the location where Curiosity hoped to answer the scientific questions. That crazy spectacular landing system was designed to do exactly what it did: put the rover down within driving distance of amazing rocks that no landing system could possibly land on. And here we are, with all you people of little faith giving up after one year. Nada, Patrick, Michael: settle down and enjoy the ride. The science is going to be spectacular. It is *not* going to be instant. I'm not sure how to say it more plainly.

Michael Mann: 08/24/2013 12:19 CDT

You guys are a hell of a lot more capable than I am, I will keep my faith Emily Good Luck

frankbevan: 09/26/2013 04:44 CDT

HI Emily IMO u looking at it from earth --trying looking back from mars to earth and u will see how succesful this mission really has been. without YOU (you being Emily) explaining things along the way 50% of the people who visit this site would still be in the dark about mars.and space. even if we find nothing on any of the planets in this solar system --ima more thna willing to go on any journey YOU and your team want --its brilliant from a "normal" persons point of view,you show me things i cant even start to dream about.But more importanly u explain what i cant even start to dream about. so to sum up --without people like you we would still be on this planet looking at mars saying --theres city buried under the surface etc etc --even the late great Mr sagan said we would find citys on mars,you and your team have proved him wrong. scientic discoverys i hope you do find something intresting on mars --but im more than happy to start sending rovers to other planets to check them out as well. THANK YOU --FOR SHOWING ME THE STARS

chris_burke: 09/26/2013 06:28 CDT

I just wanted to mention that in the latest news post on the MSL mission page (http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/news/whatsnew/index.cfm?FuseAction=ShowNews&NewsID=1520) it confirms that Curiosity is still carrying samples from the drilling at Yellowknife Bay, with more experiments planned.

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