The Mars rover Curiosity, which has been exploring the surface of the planet Mars since 2012, is gazing at the clouds at a time when a review panel for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) criticized the Curiosity mission for its lack in scientific focus.
The Planetary Mission Senior Review panel, which reviewed NASA's seven planetary science missions, expressed its disappointment. It pointed out that Curiosity is not making most of its technical capabilities, that it should stop driving around and do more scientific work.
The review panel is dismayed that the team behind the mission only plans to analyze eight samples during its extended mission. The panel sees this as a very poor return considering the investment poured into the mission.
Coincidentally, the Curiosity rover is watching clouds amid criticisms of lack of scientific focus. On Sept. 3, Curiosity tweeted that it is heading to Pahrump Hills as it continues to advance towards Mount Sharp where it was scheduled to conduct geology work and search for clouds. The recent images that the car-sized rover sent showed drifting cloud formations that are blown by high altitude winds.
Curiosity has been focused on studying the Red Planet's surface and has been drilling for samples and collecting dust for analysis. It also has sent back selfies and event took photos that has excited UFO enthusiasts.
Robert Haberle of the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) team explained the interest on and importance of studying the martian clouds. He said that the clouds provide insights about the Martian climate, including changing wind patterns and temperatures. By studying the weather and clouds on the Red Planet, scientists could gather information on the processes that have changed the climate in Mars through time.
"Some studies suggest that clouds in the past may have significantly warmed the planet through a greenhouse effect," Haberle said. "A warmer environment is more conducive to life."
A study of the martian weather could also help shed light on how natural processes have shaped the dunes, rocks and outcrops in Mars since winds largely contribute to shaping the surface of the planet in the last three to four billion years.
The Curiosity is the flagship and most expensive of the seven missions reviewed by the panel of experts. Despite the criticisms, the missions received renewed funding from the U.S. space agency.