Vast canyons, 20-foot sand dunes, giant craters, and avalanches of red sand. These are just some of the images we can now see of Mars, thanks to NASA’s Mars [Curiosity]((https://twitter.com/marscuriosity) rover.
For an episode of 60 Minutes that aired Sunday, Bill Whitaker visited the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California to speak to the engineers and experts that are studying the information Curiosity has been sending over 30 million miles back to Earth.
The rover reached Mars four years ago with the mission of discovering whether the planet’s environment could have ever supported small life forms, known as microbes. What it found confirmed that it could have, and possibly more.
“Could have been that Mars was habitable before Earth was and life got its foothold on Mars and took its journey to Earth and we’re all Martians,” Chief Engineer Rob Manning told 60 Minutes.
Controlled remotely by the technicians at JPL, Curiosity’s internal lab has gathered evidence of essential organic chemicals on Mars. More than three billion years ago, Mars had the right factors to host life. Round pebbles have been found on the planet’s surface by Curiosity that could have been shaped by water long ago. This led researchers to consider that the rock beds they were observing on Mars could have at one point hosted water.
Rocks from Mars have been found all over Earth, Manning tells Whitaker, and it’s entirely possible that at one point life could have traveled to Earth on such a rock.
The Curiosity rover itself is a pretty wild machine. There’s a 30-minute time-lag for commands given at JPL to reach the rover, so it gets its instructions at the beginning of each day. The six-legged rover weighs one ton, and had to be lowered onto Mars in a flying saucer and then gently released with the help of firing rockets and long cables. The landing was more than nerve-wracking, says lead engineer Adam Steltzner.
“The team recognized that if we failed we would find no comfort or solace from the general public,” he says. “The man on the street says, ‘That looks crazy, I told you it was crazy.’”
Luckily the landing went off without a hitch, and 60 Minutes provides amazing footage of the entire control room jumping up and down in celebration when they hear the news.
These days, Curiosity is focused on studying a quadrant of Mt. Sharp, an 18,000-foot mountain of preserved rock. Researchers hope that material studied by Curiosity will help explain the transition from when Mars was habitable to when it stopped. “It became a prune of its former self, we are a plum, but it’s a prune,” says Steltzner.
That doesn’t mean Earth is headed in the same direction, but it puts things in perspective. “It does teach us about how delicate the balance of our environment really is,” he says.
You can watch the 60 Minutes segment here.