Sen— 2012 marked an exciting year for our exploration of Mars with the dramatic landing of NASA's Curiosity rover in August. After a textbook landing, Curiosity found itself driving down an ancient streambed and ingesting Martian soil in its search for whether microbial life ever existed or could be supported on Mars. 2012 also saw further Mars missions being planned back on Earth, including plans for Curiosity Mk II.
Curioisty is the largest and most complex rover ever built - similar in size to a road car - and had to be craned to the surface rather than landing on an airbag like its lighter and smaller predecessors. Getting the rover to the surface involved an innovative sky crane and its seven minute descent through the atmosphere to the surface was billed as "seven minutes of terror" by NASA officials ahead of the event. News of its safe landing on August 6 was met with scenes of joy and relief at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory who manage the mission.
Landing the rover itself highlighted the presence of other Mars explorers. During Curiosity's descent to the surface, three orbiters helped to relay data back to Earth. NASA's Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) sent information back to listening stations on Earth. In addition, the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter was also on hand to relay data and kept mission managers up to date with progress of the heavy rover's dramactic journey to the surface. MROS's HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera even captured Curiosity during its descent.
NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter pictures the descent of the Mars Science Laboratory slowing down under its parachute before the sky crane lowered the rover to the surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
Curiosity - more formally known as the Mars Science Laboratory - has an initial two year mission (one Martian year) to find evidence if Gale Crater was ever suitable for microbial life. The rover has ten scientific instruments as its disposal, and has the ability to scoop up soil and drill rock. Curiosity also has several cameras, including its mast camera (MastCam). Although its early days for the mission it has not yet found evidence microbial life existed on the Red Planet. It has analysed its first soil sample and also taken readings of the atmosphere.
Curiosity took this self-portrait on October 31, 2012. Curiosity's Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) was to capture the set of 55 high-resolution images were stitched together to create this full-color self-portrait. Images taken at Rocknest, Gale Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems
Whilst Curiosity stole most of the headlines sending back stunning new images of its landing site and surroundings, one of its smaller predecessors, the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, was still making tracks and in July celebrated 3,000 Martian Sols (days) on the Red Planet. Its twin, Spirit, had become trapped in sand in 2009 and ceased communicating in March 2010. Both rovers had been launched in the summer of 2003 and landed on the Red Planet in January 2004. The rovers had only been designed to operate for 90 Earth days. If Curiosity's life expectancy follows a similar path of Opportunity it is likely to be roving when its successor arrives early in the next decade.
Whilst NASA enjoyed much praise for the early success of Curiosity, their decision in February to pull out as Europe's ExoMars partner left many European scientists uncertain as to the future of that mission which now had a huge gap in funding. After NASA's exit, negotations took place between the European Space Agency and Russia, resulting in the Russian space agency agency agreeing to fund ExoMars in partnership with the European Space Agency.
ExoMars has two key components - an orbiter and a lander, both of which are now due to launch in January 2016. The orbiter is being designed to study methane and trace gases in the martian atmosphere that could be evidence of biological or geological processes on the Red Planet. The lander - officially known as the Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM) that will become Europe's first craft to land on Mars.
ExoMars 2016 Mission - Trace Gas Orbiter and Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module, Credit: ESA
NASA is planning its own mission to study the Marian atmosphere. Its MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) mission is due to launch in late 2013. The mission will be the first devoted to understanding how Mars lost its upper atmosphere. The overall aim is to find out the history of the loss of atmospheric gases to space, which will provide answers about Mars's climate evolution. There will be two other instruments on board - the Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer, and the Particles and Fields Package. The first will measure the composition and isotopes of neutral ions, while the second will characterise the solar wind and the ionosphere of the planet.
Although NASA had withdrawn its support for ExoMars earlier in the year, the agency recently announced that it was planning Curiosity Mk II. Whilst 2012 has been a busy year for our exploration of the Red Planet, there is a lot of science on and around Mars to come.