In the most anticipated rover landing in a generation, NASA landed its Mars Curiosity Rover at 1:31 am EST this morning. The Curiosity Rover (formerly known as the Mars Science Laboratory) will remain on Mars for two years, trying to find a signs that the planet can support life. The craft launched on November 26 of last year.
The rover is essentially a giant chemistry lab that will dig for ingredients in the martian soil, including nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, and oxygen. At a price tag of $2.5 billion, the Curiosity Rover is the most expensive — and most ambitious — exploratory probe in decades.
Curiosity, which is roughly the size of a Mini Cooper, underwent one of the most sophisticated landing procedures in NASA history. While previous rovers employed airbags to cushion their landings, this lastest vehicle is more massive than all previous rovers combined. A change in tactics was needed, and the Sky Crane apparatus was born. As the rover entered Mars' atmosphere at 13,000 mph, a parachute deployed to slow the craft down, and rockets fired to dampen speed further. When the craft had slowed down almost entirely, the rover detached itself and was lowered by a nylon tether to the red planet's surface. The entire orbital ballet took just seven minutes, which NASA has referred to as "seven minutes of terror."
As it takes around 14 minutes for Curiosity to signal its controllers back on Earth, NASA was held in suspense for even longer. When that signal finally came, scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in California erupted in cheers.
“Touchdown confirmed,” said engineer Allen Chen. “We’re safe on Mars.”
Arlin Crotts, astronomy professor at Columbia University, and Tariq Malik, managing editor at space.com, help to explain what is at stake for Curiosity. The main objective for the rover, they say, is to search for any trace of life.
"There are ten instruments on board, [and] they're designed to look more for biochemical signatures of life than [previous rovers] have done in the past," Crotts says. "They're looking for the precursors of life, but they also might be looking for the byproducts of life." Layers of carbon, for example, could be an indication of previous life on Mars.
What Curiosity finds, Malik says, will play an influential role in the plans to put human beings on Mars. "This mission here is basically one of the big steps forward to having footprints on Mars," he says. "It seems like there is an eye towards [finding out] what we can use there, can it support us when we go, that type of thing."
The rover landed in the Gale Crater, which is located in the southern hemisphere of the red planet. Crotts says that the crater contains stratas that hint at the presence of water. Close by is a large mountain which Curiosity will explore over its projected mission of two and a half years.
Budget cuts and the cancelled shuttle program have given NASA great cause for concern, and Malik says that Curiosity's successful landing is a sorely needed success.
"These guys poured eight years into it, and it showed," he says. "They got everything right, and it's amazing."