Martian year: The Curiosity rover logs a critical anniversary

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NASA's Curiosity rover has spent a year on Mars patiently looking for evidence that Earth's nearest planetary neighbor may have been hospitable to life once upon a time. It has already found traces of what appear to be an ancient river bed and clay minerals, an indication that water was no stranger to the environment.

Rolling along at the leisurely pace of 100 yards a day through the dull and barren landscape known as the Gale Crater, Curiosity is an estimated nine months from its destination -- the imposing Mount Sharp in the geographic center of the crater.

As The New York Times reported Tuesday, Curiosity has taken 36,700 photographs and 75,000 laser shots of rocks that will help geologists and scientists piece together a narrative about not only the planet's formation, but our own. These are heady times for scientists with expertise in clay, water and rock formations, thanks to Curiosity.

A year after the rover made its perilous descent from orbit that NASA described as "seven minutes of terror" because of the likelihood that it would fail and scatter its delicate components on impact, Curiosity is showing its worth despite a $2.5 billion price tag.

The rover, which is roughly the size of a car, can perform the mission without complaining that it would be too tedious or fearing it would be deadly (as it would for even the most dedicated human geologist). It is collecting data about an environment that mankind has every intention of visiting and, perhaps, cultivating for colonization one day.

It has been on Mars for only a year, but Curiosity has symbolically planted humanity's flag on that world with its distinctive tire tracks crisscrossing the surface. One day, if humans are lucky, our own footprints will intersect with Curiosity's treads in an ancient basin there, bringing this spectacular mission full circle.

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