After a 570 million-km journey, the much anticipated “seven minutes of terror” turned into scenes of jubilation and awe on Sunday as NASA’s Mars Rover Curiosity touched down on Mars.
On Sunday, the one-ton, nuclear-powered rover punched through the Martian atmosphere at 13,000mph, before being lowered into Gale Crater – near Mars’ equator at precisely 5.33 GMT (1.33 EDT.)
Scientists and technicians at the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, celebrated the 10 years-in-the-making success story as first images sent back within 13 tense minutes confirmed Curiosity’s arrival on Mars.
“We are wheels down on Mars. Oh, my God,” said one controller.
“Touchdown confirmed,” said another, as they openly hugged and wept.
News of the historic touchdown was relayed to Earth via NASA’s Odyssey satellite, currently in orbit around Mars.
Taken by a rear camera on Curiosity, the low resolution first image showed a dusty render of the rover’s wheel on the surface. This was followed by a second image showing the shadow of the vehicle on Mars. Color images are expected in the the next couple of days.
Millions around the world watched the landing. Aa live broadcast of the event in Times Square, New York, allowed the crowd there to share the occasion. And on Twitter, a NASA-associated feed for Curiosity sent out this message at the point of touchdown.
“I’m safely on the surface of Mars. GALE CRATER I AM IN YOU!!!”
Gale Crater was picked as the landing site because of its proximity to Mar’s equator. Thought to provide optimal conditions for finding water, this element is considered by scientists to be a requirement for life. Previous trips to Mars revealed ice near the Martian north pole, indicating water once flowed on the planet despite the desert conditions that now exist there.
From Washington, President Obama hailed NASA’s achievement with this statement.
“Tonight, on the planet Mars, the United States of America made history. The successful landing of Curiosity – the most sophisticated roving laboratory ever to land on another planet – marks an unprecedented feat of technology that will stand as a point of national pride far into the future,”
“It proves that even the longest of odds are no match for our unique blend of ingenuity and determination, And tonight’s success reminds us that our pre-eminence – not just in space, but here on Earth – depends on continuing to invest wisely in the innovation, technology, and basic research that has always made our economy the envy of the world.”
Back in Pasadena, NASA administrator Charles Bolden said,
“Today, the wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze the trail for human footprints on Mars. We’re on Mars again, and it’s absolutely incredible. It doesn’t get any better than this!”
Also referred to as the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), NASA’s own website described Curiosity’s primary mission as,
“[The] beginning of a two-year prime mission to investigate one of the most intriguing places on Mars.”
The MSL will look for evidence that Mars may once have supported life, specifically whether its environment was once suitable for microbial life.
Although this is the fourth rover on Mars, this present rover which is the size of small car, far surpasses previous models. Packed with hi-tech equipment and 17 camera, one instrument alone is as nearly 4 times the mass of the very first rover installed on Mars in 1997.
Curiosity will investigate the central 5km-plus mountain inside Gale Crater, and also study rocks billions of years old using lazers to probe their chemistry. Samples drilled from rock will be analyzed in labs inside the rover’s interior with those results sent to Earth via antennas on the rover’s deck. Command directives from NASA technicians will tell the rover where to plot. But it will take a future mission to bring Martian rocks and soil back to Earth for hands-on examination.
Not a hit and run mission by any means, Curiosity has been fitted with a plutonium battery to facilitate its survival in a hostile environment for a long time. Steve Squyres, lead scientist for the 2004 Opportunity and Spirit rover missions, presently at Cornell University told the BBC,
“People have got to realise this mission will be different,” said Squyres. “When we landed we only thought we’d get 30 sols [Martian days] on the surface, so we had to hit the ground running. Curiosity has plenty of time,”
Built at a cost of $ 2.5 billion, although the rover is funded for up to two years of operations, many expect Curiosity’s mission to extend into the next decade.