At 126 million kilometers from Earth, just in the cool, red immense Mars, a robot size 4×4 begins soon after dawn. Like every day for six years, wait for your instructions.
Around 9:30, Mars time, there is a message that leaves California a quarter of an hour ago: "The height of 10 meters will change to 45 degrees and will continue independently until that point."
Curiosity, as it is called, moves slowly, between 35 and 110 meters per hour, no more. Batteries and other restrictions explain the daily journey of about one hundred meters and reach a record of 220 meters.
Once there, 17 robot cameras capture the surroundings. His laser makes fun of the rocks. In the face of a particularly attractive stone, a sample of a few grams will stop.
At about 5:00 PM local time, the robot will wait for the passage of one of NASA's three satellites circling Mars to deliver a message: several hundred megabits, and then transferred to the main ground antennas of their human bosses.
Laboratory in miniatures
On the ground floor of the Goddard Space Center 34 in NASA Greenbelt, one hour from Washington, scientists are analyzing this data daily. In this great room without windows full of tools and computers, look at the signs of life on Mars.
The interior of curiosity is a "miniaturization miracle": a microwave-sized chemical laboratory called SAM.
Charles Malespin, Deputy Head of the Curiosity Science Team, points to tools in work plans: Robots have been reduced and compacted.
"This is the most complicated tool NASA has ever sent to another planet," says Malespin, who has dedicated her professional life since 2006.
SAM analyzes samples by heating in the furnace up to 1000 ° C. Gasses are released during cooking, rocks and soils. Then these gases are separated and sent to the tools that analyze them and draw the "fingerprint" of the sample.
At Goddard, the French researcher Maeva Millan compares this chemical trace with experiments on known molecules. When the curves are imitated, she says, "That's my good molecule."
Thanks to SAM, it is known that there are complex organic molecules on Mars, and that the planet's antiquity was constructed, geologically much younger than scientists believed.
"If we want to go to Mars, it is unnecessary to import resources that already exist," adds Malespin, for example, referring to water. "We could dig the soil, warm up and loosen the water, just take the oven, we'll have as much water as we want," he says. The same applies to various materials that could become fuel for a future "rocket pump".
On the other side of the United States, there are about 15 men and women in the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, near Los Angeles, who drive curiosity.
"My favorite moment of the day is when I sit down to see pictures sent from Mars," says Frank Hartman, who drives Curiosity and another robot, Opportunity, which fell apart in June.
Drivers' work is to plan the Martian Day – which lasts 24 hours and 40 minutes – to the robot and program the commands so they are in line with it.
Unless a joystick or real-time communication is used, it is unlikely that they will encounter problems in advance, such as Saturation Opportunities or openings caused by rocky soils on curiosity.
"We have to remember that we know almost nothing about this place," says Hartman.
Over the years, scientists and drivers have been connected to their robots. When the opportunity broke up, after 14 years Hartman and his teammates wanted to cry. "He left with honors," he says.
Curiosity has made 19.75 km from 2012. In one year he should achieve his goal: Mount Sharp. A few months later he loses his Martian monopoly. Two US and European robots are expected to land on the planet in 2020.