At 126 million kilometers from the earth, only in the cold, is the red impotence of Mars, a robot, the size of a small 4×4 begins shortly after dawn. As every day for six years, wait for your instructions.
About 9:30, Mars time, the message that leaves California one quarter an hour earlier: "Past 10 meters, turns to 45 degrees and continues independently until that point."
Curiosity, as it is called, moves slowly, between 35 and 110 meters per hour, no more. The batteries and other restrictions explain their daily journey of about one hundred meters and reach a record of 220 meters.
Once there, the robot's 17 cameras photographed the surroundings. His laser makes fun of the rocks. Facing a particularly attractive stone, it stops to take a few grams of sample.
About 17:00 local time, the robot is waiting for one of the three NASA satellites surrounding Mars to deliver its report: several hundred megabytes, then transferred to the main field antennas of their human bosses.
Laboratory in miniature
On the ground floor of building 34 of NASA's Goddard Space Center in Greenbelt, one hour from Washington, researchers analyze this data every day. In the big room without windows full of instruments and computers, look for signs of life on Mars.
The interior of Curiosity is "a wonderful miniaturization": a chemical laboratory that is a microwave, called SAM.
Charles Malespin, Deputy Director of Curiosity's Scientific Team, points to the tools in the work plans: they have been reduced and compressed inside the robot.
"This is the most complicated instrument ever sent by NASA to another planet," said Malespin, who has committed his professional life to it since 2006.
SAM analyzes the samples by heating them in an oven up to 1000 ° C. During cooking, stones and soils release gases. Then these gases are separated and sent to instruments that analyze them and draw a "fingerprint" of the sample.
At Goddard, the French scientist Maeva Millan compares this chemical footprint with that of experiments performed on known molecules. When imitating the curves, he says, "It's my good molecule."
Thanks to SAM, it is known that there are complex organic molecules on Mars, and that the antiquity of the plan's surface has been established, geologically much younger than scientists believed.
"If we want to go to Mars, it's useless to import the resources that already exist," adds Malespin, referring to, for example, water. "We could dig the ground, heat it and release water, just take an oven, we will have as much water as we like," he says. The same goes for different materials that can become fuel for a future "rocket service station".
On the other side of the United States, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, near Los Angeles, there are about 15 men and women who comment on curiosity.
"My favorite moment of the day is when I sit down to see the pictures sent from Mars," said Frank Hartman, commenting on curiosity and another opportunity, Opportunity, who broke in June.
The drivers work is to plan March Day – which lasts 24 hours and 40 minutes – of the robot and to program commands to follow it.
By not having a joystick or real-time communication, it is unlikely that they will detect problems in advance, such as the saturation of opportunity or the holes caused by rocky land in the wheel of Curiosity.
"We have to remember that we almost do not know about this place," Hartman says.
Over the years, researchers and drivers are connected to their robots. When the opportunity broke up after 14 years, Hartman and his teammates would cry. "He retired with honor," he says.
Curiosity has made 19.75km since 2012. In one year, he should now achieve his goal: Mount Sharp. A few months later he will lose his marsh monopoly. Two American and European robots are expected to land on the planet 2020.