At 126 million kilometers from Earth, only in red and cold Mars, the small 4×4 robot began shortly after dawn. Like every day for six years, wait for your instructions.
Around 9:30, time Mars, arrived a message that left California a quarter of an hour before: "A face of 10 meters, changes to 45 degrees and continues to be independent until that point".
"Curiosity"As it is called, it moves slowly, between 35 and 110 meters per hour, no more … Batteries and other limits explain its daily journey of about one hundred meters, reaching a record 220 meters.
Once there, 17 robot cameras photographed the surroundings. The laser mocks rocks. Faced with a very interesting stone, he stopped to take a sample of several grams.
Around 5:00 local time, the robot will wait for part of one of the three satellites NASA They orbit around Mars to deliver their report: several hundred megabits, then transmitted to their boss's main terrestrial antenna.
– Miniature laboratories –
On the ground floor of Building 34 at NASA's Goddard Space Center on the Greenbelt, about an hour from Washington, scientists analyze this data every day. In a large windowless room full of instruments and computers, look for signs of life on Mars.
Curiosity's interior is a "miracle of miniaturization": a chemical laboratory the size of a microwave oven, called SAM.
Charles Malespin, deputy head of Curiosity's scientific team, shows the instruments in the work plan: they have been reduced and compacted in robots.
"This is the most complicated instrument NASA has ever sent to other planets," said Malespin, who has devoted his professional life since 2006.
The SAM analyzes the sample by heating it in the oven to 1000 ° C. When cooking, rocks and soil release gas. Then, these gases are separated and sent to the instrument that analyzes it and draws a "fingerprint" sample.
In Goddard, a French researcher, Maeva Millan compared these chemical traces with experiments carried out on known molecules. When the curve was copied, he said: "That is my good molecule."
Thanks to SAM it is known that there are complex organic molecules on Mars, and that ancient times from the planet's surface have been formed, geologically much younger than scientists believe.
"If we want to go to Mars, there is no point in importing existing resources," Malespin added, referring, for example, to water. "We can dig the soil, heat it and release water, just by carrying the oven, we will have as much water as we want," he said. The same applies to various materials that can be fuel for future "rocket service stations."
– without a joystick –
On the other side of the United States, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, near Los Angeles, there are around 15 men and women who govern Curiosity.
"My favorite moment today is when I sat down to see pictures sent from Mars," said Frank Hartman, who ordered Curiosity and other robots, Opportunities, which were damaged in June.
The driver's job is to plan a Mars day – which lasts 24 hours and 40 minutes – from the robot and program the order to obey it.
By not having a joystick or real-time communication, it is impossible for them to find a previous problem, such as the saturation of opportunities or holes caused by rocky soil at Curiosity's wheel.
"We must remember that we hardly knew about this place," Hartman said.
For years, scientists and drivers attached to their robots. When the Opportunity broke up, after 14 years, Hartman and his colleagues wanted to cry. "He retired with praise," he said.
Curiosity has been done 19.75 km since 2012. Within a year, he had to achieve his goal: Mount Sharp. A few months later, he would lose the Mars monopoly. Two American and European robots are expected to land on this planet in 2020.
Ivan Couronne / AFP