6 August 2012, the Curiosity rover landed on Mars to determine if the Red Planet could once have harboured life. CNES is closely involved in this mission led by NASA, which has been extended beyond its initially planned duration of 22 months.

Was Mars once habitable? That is the main question the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission of NASA’s Mars exploration programme is attempting to answer with the Curiosity rover operating on the planet’s surface. Since landing on 6 August 2012 in Gale Crater, this 900-kg robotic explorer has conducted a wealth of analyses aimed at assessing Mars’ habitability, estimating its biological potential and characterizing its geology. Curiosity has already determined that conditions on Mars were once conducive to life, discovered an ancient river bed and failed to detect any methane, a gas released by certain living organisms on Earth that would have strengthened the likelihood of lifeforms existing on Mars had it been found. To accomplish its task, Curiosity has a robotic arm for performing in-situ surveys of soil and rocks, and scooping up samples for further analysis by its SAM (Sample Analysis at Mars) and CHEMIN (Chemistry & Mineralogy) mini-laboratories. The rover is also equipped with 8 other instruments.

CNES’s contribution to the MSL mission is twofold. First, it is overseeing the French instruments SAM and ChemCam (CHEMistry CAMera), in which the LATMOS atmospheres, environments and space observations laboratory in Paris and Guyancourt, and the IRAP astrophysics and planetology research institute in Toulouse are involved. Second, CNES is responsible for developing and running the French Instruments Mars Operations Centre (FIMOC) in Toulouse, which operates ChemCam and SAM, and exploits the data they gather.