Curiosity, the latest rover in NASA's Mars exploration program, and most sophisticated to date, successfully landed this morning on the planet's dusty surface. In a daring series of maneuvers, each of which had to execute perfectly in order for the rest to unfold, Curiosity's landing went off without a hitch. The robotic geochemistry lab will now begin its search for evidence of past life on the Red Planet, just as soon as the global jubilation surrounding this feat dies down.
Even with all the mighty engineering resources of NASA, even knowing that years of debate, design, and preparation are behind it, it is still almost unfathomable. But it is true: the Mars rover Curiosity has successfully placed its wheels on the surface of the Red Planet. Curiosity has arrived!
There was no guarantee it would make it. The cruise stage of the spacecraft that carried Curiosity between Earth and Mars, as well as the rover itself, were based on models successfully used in the past. The entry, descent and landing system, though, was new. At 9 feet long (2.8 m) and almost 2,000 pounds (950 kg), Curiosity is much bigger and heavier than its predecessors, and new elements had to be added to make a landing possible. “Complex” would be a feeble way to describe the extremely delicate chain of events, each step dangling precariously from the success of the last.
After traveling 154 million miles (248 million km) in a little over eight months, the rover and descent stage module entered the Martian atmosphere at about 7:26 am CEST. and began their mad fall to the surface. It may have taken only seven minutes between entry and touchdown, but those famous “seven minutes of terror” were undoubtedly the most agonizing in the life of many an engineer and scientist involved in the Mars Science Laboratory mission. The landing was orchestrated in minute detail, of course, but once Curiosity hit the planet's atmosphere, the fate of the rover was out of NASA's control.
The craft needed to slow to a halt from a speed of 13,000 miles per hour (about 20,000 km/h). Falling at scorchingly high speed through the atmosphere, Curiosity lost some speed to friction, but not enough. Releasing its parachute provided a jolting shock and the drag to slow it further. Still falling too fast to make a safe landing, it cut the parachute loose and simultaneously fired eight rockets, performing a sophisticated side-step to avoid the now useless chute. But rockets firing downward, too close to the surface, would kick up a radar-obliterating dust storm; the rockets had to go. Descending on four 21-foot nylon cables, Curiosity put some distance between itself and the descent stage and then—right then—at the moment the rover touched down, the cables let go. The descent module rocketed away, leaving Curiosity to carry out its mission on the surface of Mars.
Even those of us barely out of bed felt the oxygen deprivation effects of such extended breath-holding.
Robotic geochemist seeks signs of ancient life
Sent to look for signs of past (not present) microbial life on Mars, Curiosity will perform detailed chemical analyses of rocks, soil and the atmosphere. A sophisticated lab on wheels, the car-sized rover will explore its landing site, Gale Crater, for evidence of a past environment that could have supported life: liquid water, a source of carbon, and other chemicals necessary for life. Its ultimate destination is a 6-kilometer-high mountain in the middle of the crater that features sedimentary layers possibly containing the geological and chemical clues of interest.
Equipped with 10 scientific instruments, the rover will first use its ChemCam to take a preliminary look at features, its lasers vaporizing rock from a distance to determine if samples are worth taking. If so, a robotic arm, equipped with five devices, including a drill at the end, will be used to collect samples for analysis on board the rover. About 70 will be processed during Curiosity's primary mission of one Martian year (687 Earth days).
We now have to wait to know what signs of a life-friendly habitat, if any, the rover will find on the Red Planet. But given the excitement Curiosity has already created (as evidenced, for one, by the Twitter stream for hashtag #MSL), the magnificence of the technological feat achieved by humans today should keep us going for quite some time. The jubilation at NASA Mission Control, shown in this video, says it all. There's sure to be more where that came from; stay tuned, stay Curious...
Find out more: Five Things About NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/msl/msl5things20100916.html Mars Science Laboratory Contribution to Mars Exploration Program Science Goals http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/mission/science/goals/ "Boldly Opening a New Window onto Mars", by John Grotzinger , project scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory mission, The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/04/opinion/grotzinger-boldly-opening-a-new-window-onto-mars.html?_r=2&smid=tw-nytimesscience&seid=auto Similar articles on MyScienceWork: Uncanny Titan, Prebiotic Mysteries http://blog.mysciencework.com/en/2012/02/16/uncanny-titan-prebiotic-mysteries.html European Space Agency: What to watch for in 2012 http://blog.mysciencework.com/en/2012/01/13/european-space-agency-2012.html A Practical Guide to Asteroid Mining http://blog.mysciencework.com/en/2012/05/31/a-practical-guide-to-asteroid-mining.html Start Dreaming Again: The Coming Era of Asteroid Mining http://blog.mysciencework.com/en/2012/05/24/start-dreaming-again-the-coming-era-of-asteroid-mining.html Abundance & the Business of Space 2.0 http://blog.mysciencework.com/en/2012/06/06/abundance-the-business-of-space-2-0.html