NASA's Rover Lands on Mars

Monday, August 06, 2012

The Mars Planetary Rover Curiosity (courtesy of NASA/WNYC)

In the most anticipated rover landing in a generation, NASA landed its Mars Curiosity Rover at 1:31 am EST this morning. The Curiosity Rover (formerly known as the Mars Science Laboratory) will remain on Mars for two years, trying to find a signs that the planet can support life. The craft launched on November 26 of last year. 

The rover is essentially a giant chemistry lab that will dig for ingredients in the martian soil, including nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, and oxygen. At a price tag of $2.5 billion, the Curiosity Rover is the most expensive — and most ambitious — exploratory probe in decades. 

Curiosity, which is roughly the size of a Mini Cooper, underwent one of the most sophisticated landing procedures in NASA history. While previous rovers employed airbags to cushion their landings, this lastest vehicle is more massive than all previous rovers combined. A change in tactics was needed, and the Sky Crane apparatus was born. As the rover entered Mars' atmosphere at 13,000 mph, a parachute deployed to slow the craft down, and rockets fired to dampen speed further. When the craft had slowed down almost entirely, the rover detached itself and was lowered by a nylon tether to the red planet's surface. The entire orbital ballet took just seven minutes, which NASA has referred to as "seven minutes of terror." 

As it takes around 14 minutes for Curiosity to signal its controllers back on Earth, NASA was held in suspense for even longer. When that signal finally came, scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in California erupted in cheers. 

“Touchdown confirmed,” said engineer Allen Chen. “We’re safe on Mars.”

Arlin Crotts, astronomy professor at Columbia University, and Tariq Malik, managing editor at space.com, help to explain what is at stake for Curiosity. The main objective for the rover, they say, is to search for any trace of life. 

"There are ten instruments on board, [and] they're designed to look more for biochemical signatures of life than [previous rovers] have done in the past," Crotts says. "They're looking for the precursors of life, but they also might be looking for the byproducts of life." Layers of carbon, for example, could be an indication of previous life on Mars. 

What Curiosity finds, Malik says, will play an influential role in the plans to put human beings on Mars. "This mission here is basically one of the big steps forward to having footprints on Mars," he says. "It seems like there is an eye towards [finding out] what we can use there, can it support us when we go, that type of thing."

The rover landed in the Gale Crater, which is located in the southern hemisphere of the red planet. Crotts says that the crater contains stratas that hint at the presence of water. Close by is a large mountain which Curiosity will explore over its projected mission of two and a half years. 

Budget cuts and the cancelled shuttle program have given NASA great cause for concern, and Malik says that Curiosity's successful landing is a sorely needed success. 

"These guys poured eight years into it, and it showed," he says. "They got everything right, and it's amazing." 

Guests:

Arlin Crotts and Tariq Malik

Produced by:

Robert Balint and Arwa Gunja

Comments [4]

Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

I love that Curiosity landed at the same time that our Olympics are going on. What a marathon victory!

Congratulations NASA and the world!

Whatever money it takes to keep the program going it is worth it. Even failures need to be shrugged off. When we invest in Science and Space exploration, only good things can happen (as long as the Scientists are in charge.)
When we spend money on The Space Program we all see results, when we spend money just about anywhere else, it is never clear what happens to the money.
I hate the name Curiosity... I'm calling it Curio from now on. Yah!

Aug. 06 2012 08:34 AM
TXC from Manhattan

Tariq's credit is SPACE.com, not Science.com. Thanks.

Aug. 06 2012 06:30 AM
Johnt from earth New Rochelle, NY

the following is a copy of my email to our 6 grandchildren, ages 18 months to 11 years, all of whom are vacationing on Cape Cod...

"Well boys and girls it's 2:05am and grandpa is about to go to bed...but I did want to share with you and your parents a quick bed-time story of how I've spent the past 3 hours.

Tomorrow morning you will all wake up to the news that the United States of America just landed a mechanical robot, controlled from Earth, on the surface of Mars! Its official name is 'Curiosity' and its job will be to help scientists learn if there ever was life on the planet Mars.

It was especially exciting for me because I was able to watch the landing live on our computer as it was being streamed from the Jet Propulsion Laboratories and NASA in California. Who would have thought when I was your age that this would be the future of science and travel throughout our universe. Imagine what it will be like when you are all 70 years old!

When you wake up tomorrow I hope your parents will share this with you and you can watch too. Just set your browser to the following link and explore.

Be 'Curious'...ask questions...examine...think...study and never forget you can accomplish anything if you try, try and try.

http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov

Love you all...gp"

Aug. 06 2012 06:26 AM
DS

Feed the planet.

Aug. 06 2012 06:06 AM

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