The 5 Best Answers From The Mars Curiosity Rover Team’s Reddit AMA

A group of engineers from the Mars Curiosity Rover mission answered questions in a Reddit Ask Me Anything session today. In addition to questions about the mission and Mars, the Curiosity Rover team responded to numerous comments about how to intern or work at NASA and what the process is like, but did not respond to several questions about SpaceX, Elon Musk’s privatized space exploration company.

The team did an AMA last August, shortly after the Rover landed on Mars, and returned this year a week before the one-year anniversary of the Curiosity landing. The team gained more positive sentiment for Curiosity on the thread — at the time of posting, it is at the very top of Reddit, with over 2,350 comments.

As my colleague Sarah Perez pointed out earlier today, there are a lot of talented people in tech right now with the ability to solve big problems that are choosing not to. It’s refreshing to read about the Curiosity team’s efforts to explore Mars.

Here are five of the most interesting responses from the team:

The Most Significant Discovery So Far

“The results from our first rock drilling told us that the past environment, when that mudstone rock formed, was suitable for life. The mudstone formed in an ancient river system or an intermittently wet lake bed that could have provided the chemical energy and other favorable conditions for microbial life, if life existed then. This ancient wet environment was not harshly oxidizing, acidic or extremely salty. All the necessary chemical building blocks were available.”

Why Haven’t We Found Evidence That Life Existed On Mars In The Past?

“Over millions of years the water evaporated because the atmosphere got too thin to support it in liquid form. Mars does not have a global magnetic field the way Earth does, which helps shield the atmosphere from stripped away by the sun’s damaging radiation. So while there is plenty of CO2 and H20 ice, no liquid is possible. If life arose on Mars, it would have been millions or even billions of years ago, and preserving evidence of life for billions of years is very hard. So the evidence could be there and we haven’t found it, or life didn’t arise. We have to find out!”

What does the team hope to accomplish by getting Curiosity to the top of Mount Sharp, the central peak of Gale Crater, where Curiosity landed?

“It is doubtful Curiosity will make it all the way to the top of Mount Sharp, although it would be great if it did. What we’re really hoping for is to drive up the rock layers near the lower flank of Mount Sharp to look for clues to what the past environment was like and how environmental conditions changed with time from older rocks at the base to younger rocks higher up.”

The most intense moments

“For me landing was the most intense moment. We all gathered together with all the team members who had put so much into this mission that we were on the edge of our seats waiting to hear how the 7 minutes of terror would end. The feeling when we got that first photo back of the wheel on the ground was one of the greatest feelings in the world.”

“On Sol 200, we had a hardware problem on the rover that then caused the software to not work properly. After looking at the data, we decided the safest thing to do would be to swap to the back-up computer that didn’t have the problem. We did this as soon as we could by getting a large (70m) station over Madrid and sending hardware commands that bypassed software to swap computers. We then had to wait the round trip light time (~ 30 minutes at the time) to get the signal that it had all worked fine. It did and now we are on the back-up computer!”

The Biggest thing the team wants to find on Mars

“Well there are large features on Mars such as long canyons and extinct volcanoes. If you mean most important thing we wish to find, we want to know if life ever arose on Mars and if life has arisen elsewhere in our solar system or universe.”

You can read the entire AMA here.