NASA — After a 36-week flight through space, NASA has successfully landed its car-sized rover, named Curiosity, on Mars. From all appearances, the mission thus far has been flawless. Curiosity will now begin a two-year mission to study the red planet, Earth’s second-closest planetary neighbor. Curiosity lifted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Nov. 26, 2011.
Curiosity is by far NASA’s most ambitious mission to study Mars to date. The one-ton rover was lowered to its targeted landing spot near a mountain by a rocket-powered sky crane. Although gravity on Mars is only 38 percent of that on Earth, the complexity of the landing system, coupled with a 14-minute signal lag due to the 154 million mile distance in sending and receiving commands, made the landing an exquisite technological ballet and the successful result a triumph. The seven-minute descent had been dubbed the “Seven-minutes of terror” by NASA staff. From a logistics standpoint, the Curiosity mission is one of the largest NASA projects since the Apollo program that successfully landed men on the Moon.
“Today, the wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze the trail for human footprints on Mars. Curiosity, the most sophisticated rover ever built, is now on the surface of the Red Planet, where it will seek to answer age-old questions about whether life ever existed on Mars — or if the planet can sustain life in the future,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “This is an amazing achievement, made possible by a team of scientists and engineers from around the world and led by the extraordinary men and women of NASA and our Jet Propulsion Laboratory. President Obama has laid out a bold vision for sending humans to Mars in the mid-2030s, and today’s landing marks a significant step toward achieving this goal.”
Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun. The first successful flyby of the planet occurred with NASA’s Mariner 4 probe in 1965. Reaching the planet has proven to be a difficult task, with roughly two-thirds of the missions launched by both NASA and the Russian space agency ending in failure. Although Russia was the first to land a craft on the planet, the first failed during descent and the second failed moments after landing. The first successful landing was NASA’s 1975 Viking mission, utilizing two landers. One remained operational for six years, the other for three.
Curiosity landed at 1:32 a.m. on Aug. 6 near the foot of a mountain three miles tall and 96 miles in diameter inside Gale Crater. During a nearly two-year prime mission, the rover will investigate whether the region ever offered conditions favorable for microbial life.
Curiosity carries 10 science instruments, 15 times the mass of the science payloads on the earlier Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Some of the tools are the first of their kind on Mars, such as a laser-firing instrument for checking elemental composition of rocks from a distance. The rover will use a drill and scoop at the end of its robotic arm to gather soil and powdered samples of rock interiors, then sieve and parcel out these samples into analytical laboratory instruments inside the rover.
To handle this science toolkit, Curiosity is twice as long and five times as heavy as Spirit or Opportunity. The Gale Crater landing site places the rover within driving distance of layers of the crater’s interior mountain. Observations from orbit have identified clay and sulfate minerals in the lower layers, indicating a wet history.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The rover was designed, developed and assembled at JPL. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.