I was at home on Sunday evening, turning on my TV just prior to the start of Olympics coverage, when I caught Brian Williams of NBC showing an animation of the Mars rover landing, which would happen later that night. The animation was very cool. I couldn’t stay up to watch the actual landing, since I had an early morning flight. But later in the day I heard the fantastic news that Curiosity, NASA’s most advanced Mars rover, had landed safely.
The night before, a couple of NASA engineers didn’t seem to be overly confident that the landing would go as planned. After all, this was the most complex landing ever attempted on Mars. Curiosity is much bigger than previous rovers, weighing in at about a ton. The flight took 36-weeks to cover 350 million miles, but the landing took only seven minutes.
The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft that carried Curiosity succeeded at every step of the landing, including the final severing of bridle cords and a flyaway maneuver of the rocket backpack. Curiosity landed at 1:32 a.m. EDT near the foot of a mountain three miles tall and 96 miles in diameter inside Gale Crater. Confirmation of Curiosity's successful landing came in communications relayed by NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter and received by the Canberra, Australia, antenna station of NASA's Deep Space Network.
Now that the landing is behind it, Curiosity will begin a two-year investigation of the planet, trying to answer, among other things, questions about whether life ever existed on Mars, or if the planet can sustain life in the future. Curiosity returned its first view of Mars, a wide-angle scene of rocky ground near the front of the rover. Nothing much to see in this shot, but more images are anticipated in the next several days.
Curiosity was designed, developed and assembled at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. at a cost of $2.5 billion. It carries 10 scientific instruments, some of which 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 has a drill and scoop at the end of its robotic arm. It will use these to gather soil and powdered samples of rock interiors, then sift and parcel out these samples into analytical laboratory instruments inside the vehicle. The instruments are about 15 times as large as the science payloads on the Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity.
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.