Hugs and high-fives among mission staff marked the risky but successful landing last week of Curiosity, the newest of the National Aeronautics & Space Administration’s Mars rovers. If all continues to go well, the craft will spend the next two years searching for evidence that the Red Planet has ever been able to support life.
As the craft touched down at 1:32 AM EDT on Aug. 6, mission control engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory jumped up from their monitors in relief after the high-stakes landing; a few shed tears. Minutes later, shouts erupted as Curiosity sent back its first images, including one of its own shadow against the dusty martian surface.
The 1-ton Curiosity is the “most sophisticated roving laboratory ever sent to another planet,” said John P. Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy, at a post-touchdown briefing. Curiosity, sent to Mars at a cost of $2.5 billion, will search for signs of life and probe the planet’s watery history through detailed analysis of its geology and organic compounds.
In what NASA engineers dubbed “seven minutes of terror,” Curiosity hurtled into Mars’s atmosphere at 13,000 mph and parachuted toward the surface. It powered its descent with eight rocket engines.
According to NASA engineer Adam Steltzner, who also spoke at the briefing, Curiosity landed “in a nice flat spot” in Mars’s Gale Crater. NASA scientists think the site’s stratified deposits could help them reconstruct Mars’s geological history.
Nancy W. Hinman, a geochemist at the University of Montana, says the crater is a “perfect site” because it has both clay and evaporite deposits, both of which on Earth preserve evidence of organic matter.
Mission staff will spend the next month testing Curiosity’s array of instruments and taking the rover for its first spin, project scientist John P. Grotzinger said. The rover includes two laboratories for analyzing rock, soil, and gas samples via mass spectrometry, tunable laser spectroscopy, gas chromatography, and X-ray diffraction.
Curiosity is powered by a plutonium-based thermoelectric generator that could last longer than the mission time span, NASA engineers said. The Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which landed in 2004, they noted, long outlasted their original missions. Opportunity is still roving the surface of Mars.
Curiosity's latest images are available at: http://1.usa.gov/MfiyD0.