Mars rover Curiosity touches down

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 2:31 PM

Elizabeth Lopatto

NEW YORK - The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Curiosity rover landed safely on Mars Monday after a 352 million-mile journey and harrowing plunge through the planet’s atmosphere dubbed "7 Minutes of Terror."

The vehicle, loaded with the most-sophisticated instruments ever used off Earth, touched down at 1:32 a.m. New York time. Scientists developed the $2.5 billion mission to help determine whether Mars has an environment that can support life.

Curiosity landed at a site called Gale Crater, at the foot of a 3.4 mile (5.5 kilometer) high mountain. The crater spans 96 miles, an area about the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, according to NASA. Because of its low elevation, water on Mars would probably have pooled in the crater. Orbiting probes suggest there may be water-related clay and minerals. Curiosity is loaded with equipment to allow analysis of air, rock and soil samples.

"I’m thrilled," said Bobby Braun, a professor of space technology at the Georgia Tech, who was NASA’s chief technologist in 2010-2011. "I’m ecstatic. I can barely talk because I’ve been screaming. We were tense here, but the mission went like clockwork."

Hundreds of spectators, many carrying cameras, gathered in sultry weather in New York’s Times Square to witness the event, which was broadcast on a large electronic screen overhead. The crowd erupted into applause and chanted "NASA! NASA!" when Curiosity’s safe landing was confirmed. An electronic sign below carried the message: "Congratulations Curiosity on your successful landing on Mars."

"I wanted to see the landing in an intensely social atmosphere," said Max Juren, 31, from Austin, Texas, wearing a tinfoil hat for the occasion. "I would rather see billions of dollars spent on exploration than a single cent on war. I am happy they succeeded. I was nervous."

The one-ton rover touched down after hanging by ropes from a rocket backpack. The descent was tracked by the Mars orbiter Odyssey, which was able to almost immediately relay to scientists on earth black-and-white fisheye images of the planet received by the Canberra, Australia, antenna station of NASA’s Deep Space Network.

"It’s a really big step outwards, and the only place we can look is out," said Jim O’Reilly, 20, from Redding, Conn., who joined the crowd at Times Square.

NASA dubbed the period from entry to touchdown the "7 Minutes of Terror" in a video describing the event. The spacecraft entered the atmosphere and decelerated quickly, deploying a parachute. It then separated into parts, one of which was a hover craft with rockets.

"Today, the wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze the trail for human footprints on Mars," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement. President Barack Obama laid out a vision for sending humans to Mars in the mid-2030s, "and today’s landing marks a significant step toward achieving this goal," Bolden said.

The craft lowered Curiosity to the ground using a "sky crane," and then flew away. The new system replaced airbags used in previous missions to lessen ground impact because Curiosity was too heavy to use them.

A 14-minute communication lag exists between the vehicle and the control center 154 million miles away on Earth, where scientists monitored transmissions from the craft. By the time NASA got word the device had entered the atmosphere, Curiosity had already landed.

"Some people have been working on this for 10 years," said Braun, the space researcher, in a telephone interview from Mission Control in California. "This is an asset for the whole world, so we’re going to be careful."

Curiosity returned its first view of Mars, a wide-angle scene of rocky ground near the front of the rover. More images are anticipated in the next several days as the mission blends observations of the landing site with activities to configure the rover for work and check the performance of its instruments and mechanisms, NASA said.

The rover is currently in a safe state, Braun said. It will be checked out and deployed over several days.

"The cameras have to be calibrated," he said. "This is an elaborate, complex machine."

Curiosity carries 10 science instruments with a total mass 15 times as large as the science payloads on the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, according to NASA. 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, NASA said.

The Mars Science Laboratory, the formal name of the mission deploying the Curiosity rover, was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida on Nov. 26, 2011. After Curiosity, the only planned U.S. mission to Mars is an atmospheric orbiter meant to launch next year.


PASADENA, Calif. - NASA’s rover Curiosity touched down deep in a Martian crater early Monday after a picture-perfect descent and landing, beginning what promises to be one of the most ambitious planetary missions in history.

Jubilant NASA engineers and scientists let out a loud and prolonged whoop when the data came in indicating that the one-ton rover had touched down. It remains unknown exactly what shape the $2.5 billion rover is in, but the fact that it survived its "seven minutes of terror" descent was cheered like the grandest Olympic triumph.

The descent and touchdown were tracked by the Mars orbiter Odyssey, which allowed Curiosity to send black-and-white "fisheye" (wide-angle) images within minutes of the rover’s wheels on the ground.

Described by top NASA officials as their "mission of the decade," the just-delivered rover will search for the building blocks extraterrestrial life as well as investigate how and why Mars turned from a wet and warm planet into the dry and cold place it is now. The complex, precision landing and sophisticated instruments being used on the mission could hasten the day when humans fly to Mars as well.

"We’re on the surface of Mars," said Allen Chen, voice of master control for the mission.

The landing took place within the 9-by-3-mile ellipse selected for touchdown. The rover is most likely in a dune field now, but will set out for nearby Mount Sharp in the weeks ahead.

To get there, the Mars Science Laboratory spaceship traveled 354 million miles since its Nov. 26 launch. The rover landed at exactly 1:31 a.m. Eastern time (10:31 p.m. Sunday in Pasadena), as planned months ago.

The spacecraft went into entry mode almost 50 minutes before landing - meaning that mission control could do virtually nothing beyond that point. Soon after, Adam Steltzner, leader of the entry, descent and landing phase, told the engineers in mission control that the spacecraft was about to enter the Martian atmosphere in "fantastic" shape.

Mission officials had been concerned that the satellite Odyssey might not be able to move into the correct position to listen as the rover entered the atmosphere. But 20 minutes before entry, mission control learned the satellite had made the necessary moves and could track the entire descent and landing.

The many milestones in the descent were met with loud applause and relieved laughter as one bit of good news came in after another.

"We’re about to do something that I think is just huge for humankind - put this chemistry lab on the surface of Mars that can rove, that can see, and that’s going to provide scientists on Earth a glimpse into the past history of Mars," NASA’s chief scientist John Grunsfeld concluded a few hours before the landing.

He likened the public excitement about Curiosity to the first Apollo moon landing in 1969, and noted that the rover’s landing day coincided with the birthday of Neil Armstrong, the first moon walker.

"We’re going to nail it for Neil," Grunsfeld said.

"Curiosity will set us up for the day when men and women will land on the surface of Mars, and it might not be that far away," Grunsfeld said.

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