NASA’s $2.5 billion Mars Science project rover, entitled Curiosity, has landed on the surface of the red planet after an eight month, 352-million-mile journey. NASA says it received a signal from the Curiosity rover after a plunge through the Martian atmosphere described as “seven minutes of terror.”
NASA celebrated just after 4:30 a.m. PST Monday when the first signal came that the rover had landed successfully.
“Touchdown confirmed,” said engineer Allen Chen. “We’re safe on Mars.”
After the rover successfully landed on the alien planet’s surface, Curiosity transmitted its first pictures showing its wheel and its shadow, cast by the sun.
“Tonight’s success, delivered by NASA, parallels our major steps forward towards a vision for a new partnership with American companies to send American astronauts into space on American spacecraft,” President Obama said in a statement. “And tonight’s success reminds us that our preeminence — not just in space, but here on Earth — depends on continuing to invest wisely in the innovation, technology, and basic research that has always made our economy the envy of the world.”
NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld told ABC News Curiosity’s instruments were working well. The first images were in black and white, shot by low-resolution navigation cameras on the rover’s chassis, meant to show the ship’s location and condition.
Mars Curiosity is NASA’s latest and boldest attempt to reach the martian planet. Before this mission, the U.S., Russia, Japan and Europe had sent 40 spacecraft to explore the fourth planet from the sun since the space age began. Twenty-six had failed. Previous Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, landed successfully on Mars a few years back but Curiosity carries with it a bevy of sophisticated instruments that eclipse the features of its previous brethren.
Curiosity is five times as large as either of the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit or Opportunity and carries more than ten times the mass of scientific instruments present on the older vehicles. The rover is expected to operate for at least 686 days as it explores with greater range than any previous Mars rover. The rover Curiosity is 3 meters in length, and weighs 900 kg, including 80 kg worth of scientific instruments. It is approximately the size of a Mini Cooper automobile.
Curiosity vs. previous Mars rovers
Curiosity was designed to look for signs that life once existed on Mars; signs that Mars could support life. This could mean the possibility of supporting the planet for human life or discovering the existence of another species.
Dubbed “Seven Minutes of Terror”, the engineers needed to figure out the best way to land. Adam Steltzner, who was responsible for leading the team of the rover’s landing, imagined the ship’s landing during sleep as they worked on the project.
“The big trick is you are going 13,000 miles an hour,” he said. “You slam into the Martian atmosphere and you want to gracefully get the spacecraft down sitting quietly on the surface on her wheels, and all of that takes different changes in the configuration of the vehicle, 79 events that must occur.”
Mars is 154 million miles from Earth. Curiosity weighs 5,293 pounds on Earth. After previous attempts, Curiosity was designed it to be lowered to the Martian surface by a heat shield, then a parachute, then retro-rockets, and finally a sky crane. Everything had to be executed to perfection and with an experiment at this scale, one mistake would have burned a multibillion dollar project in seconds.
Curiosity launched on Thanksgiving weekend 2011 traveling 354 million miles in eight months. Its target: Gale Crater, a site where many layers of Martian bedrock are believed to be exposed.
The landing happened in an area that would be facing away from Earth as the planet turned. The spacecraft was equipped with an X-band transmitter to let the rover communicate directly with Earth, but its first attempt to phone home was relayed by an older U.S. probe in orbit around Mars.
Curiosity is designed to roam the planet for one Martian year, which is 22 months on Earth.
The U.S. has had its share of failures getting to Mars, but it has done better than other countries. Russia has the most dismal record: it launched 19 missions and 19 failed. You have to give them credit for trying. Phobos Grunt, a mission to return a small soil sample from one of Mars’ tiny moons, ended in spectacular fashion last fall, unable even to leave Earth orbit. India just announced it would fund its first mission to Mars to launch next year.
Aswin Vasavada, a project scientist for Mars Curiosity, summed up the reasons for the project and the ultimate drive for NASA: “We are humans, we want to explore,” he said. “We see a mountain, and we want to climb it. As scientists we want to answer the big questions.”
Video – 7 Minutes of Terror, The Landing
Via »ABC News