Curiosity Has Landed!
NASA's largest Mars rover begins exploring the Red Planet
Scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory celebrated the rover's successful landing onto Mars. (Damian Dovarganes / AP Images; NASA / JPL-Caltech)
The next era of Mars exploration began on Monday when American space agency NASA's Curiosity rover landed on the Red Planet.
Officially called the Mars Science Laboratory, the Curiosity rover is the biggest and most sophisticated spacecraft ever sent to Mars. It's as big as a car and will use cutting-edge scientific equipment to study the planet.
Curiosity's mission is to spend at least two years studying Mars' Gale Crater. One of its most important tasks will be searching for evidence that life existed—or currently exists—on Mars. It will also extensively investigate the Martian atmosphere and surface.
"This is the most complex mission we've ever done," says Robert Manning, the flight system chief engineer.
SEVEN MINUTES OF TERROR
Because the rover is so large, NASA scientists and engineers had to come up with a new way of getting Curiosity safely to the Martian surface.
In past missions, they used air bags to cushion the impact of falling from space. With Curiosity, NASA devised a new system—called the skycrane maneuver—that lowered the rover from a spacecraft hovering above the planet's surface.
The landing began with the rover's capsule hitting the Martian atmosphere at about 13,000 miles per hour (mph). Rockets and a parachute were then used to slow the craft down to about 200 mph As the craft carrying Curiosity approached the landing site, the skycrane maneuver began and Curiosity was lowered to the surface using a 21-foot-long tether.
The landing process took seven minutes and was done by computers, with no help from mission control. Scientists and engineers called it "seven minutes of terror." It takes 14 minutes for a signal from the rover to travel from Mars to Earth. So Curiosity could have been dead on the surface for seven minutes before mission control even knew it had hit the atmosphere.
In the minutes before the landing, the mood in the control room at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) was tense. The group gathered there stared intently at the screens in front of them and bit their nails, applauding every small success.
Then, at 1:32 a.m. Eastern time, engineer Allen Chen made the announcement everyone had been waiting for: "Touchdown confirmed." The control room erupted in cheers and clapping.
"This felt like a movie, and I had to keep telling myself it's real," says Charles Elachi, the director of the JPL. "What an inspiration to young people."
Only 40 percent of the Mars landings ever attempted have been successful. The conditions there make landing on the planet extremely difficult. There was a lot of pride in accomplishing a successful landing.
"This feat is something only the United States could do," says John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administrator.
John P. Holdren, President Barack Obama's science adviser, went further.
"If anybody has been harboring doubts about the status of U.S. leadership in space, well, there's a one-ton, automobile-size piece of American ingenuity, and it's sitting on the surface of Mars right now," Holdren says.