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Roving on MarsNASA's Mars rover Curiosity has been exploring the Red Planet just since last August, but the robot has already racked up quite a string of accomplishments.
For example, the 1-ton rover has already checked off its primary mission goal, determining that its Gale Crater landing site could have supported microbial life in the ancient past.
Here's a brief rundown of Curiosity's biggest achievements, a list that will surely grow as the car-size robot gets deeper into its planned two-year surface mission on the Red Planet.
FIRST STOP: Sticking the Landing
Sticking the LandingSlide 2 of 16
Sticking the LandingCuriosity's touchdown on the night of Aug. 5 was a big deal, both for the rover's mission and the future of Mars exploration.
In a maneuver that had never been tried before on another planet, a rocket-powered sky crane lowered Curiosity to the Martian surface on cables, then flew off and crash-landed intentionally a safe distance away. NASA officials say this technique should help land other big payloads in the future, helping pave the way for human outposts on the Red Planet.
Curiosity also landed with unprecedented precision, thanks to a new guided entry system that will aid future missions as well. The rover touched down within a target ellipse that measured just 12 miles long by 4 miles wide (20 by 7 kilometers) — a huge improvement from the 2004 landing of NASA's twin Spirit and Opportunity rovers, whose ellipses spanned 93 miles by 12 miles (150 by 20 km).
NEXT: Red Planet RadiationSlide 3 of 16
Measuring Red Planet RadiationSlide 4 of 16
Measuring Red Planet RadiationCuriosity has been assessing the Martian radiation environment, helping scientists better understand the hazards radiation may pose both to potential indigenous microbes and human visitors to the Red Planet.
The news so far is encouraging, at least on the colonization front. Curiosity's measurements — the first of their kind ever taken on the surface of another planet — suggest that Martian radiation levels are comparable to those experienced by astronauts aboard the International Space Station.
Curiosity observed substantially higher radiation levels during its eight-month cruise through deep space. But overall, rover scientists say, the early numbers suggest that astronauts could endure a long-term, roundtrip Mars mission without accumulating a worryingly high dose (though a few big Mars-directed solar eruptions could complicate things considerably).
NEXT: Ancient Mars StreamSlide 5 of 16
Finding an Ancient StreambedSlide 6 of 16
Finding an Ancient StreambedJust seven weeks after Curiosity touched down, mission scientists announced that the rover had found an ancient streambed where water once flowed roughly knee-deep for thousands of years at a time.
The discovery suggests that at least some parts of Mars may have been habitable billions of years ago, since life here on Earth thrives pretty much anywhere liquid water is found.
NEXT: Mars Rock DrillingSlide 7 of 16
Drilling into a Martian RockSlide 8 of 16