06 Aug 2012
One of the first images from the Curiosity rover from NASA TV. The rover's wheel is in the lower right corner.


Eight years in planning and eight months in travel, NASA's Mars Science Laboratory landed safely on Mars, resulting in cheers from the NASA team and showing once again the true grit of American ingenuity and determination.  The landing happened around 1:32 a.m. EDT.  The Curiosity rover later sent the first images from the Gale Crater after landing.

The spacecraft survived the seven minutes of terror as it plunged through the Martian atmosphere.  It then fired the rockets on the platform that lowered the small truck, 1-ton rover to the 96-mile wide (154 kilometer wide) Gale Crater.  The platform then flew off to crash land elsewhere, leaving the rover to begin doing its work.  Afterwards, Curiosity sent a text message home stating it had made it.

Once the message was relayed from the Mars Odyssey satellite to a radio telescope in Australia, it was sent to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which resulted in cheers and hugs amongst the NASA team.  The celebration actually occurred 14 minutes after it had occurred due to the time it takes the signal to do the round trip from Mars to Earth.

The touchdown of the $2.5 billion project is what Dough McCuistion, director for Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters, called "the Super Bowl of planetary exploration."  Scientists expect Curiosity's primary mission to last one full Martian year or about two Earth years, but they hope that its nuclear powered systems will keep going for years into the future.

President Obama issued a statement via Twitter last night:

"Tonight, on planet Mars, the United States of America made history. I congratulate and thank all the men and women of NASA who made this remarkable accomplishment a reality."

NASA chief Charles Bolden calls this successful landing a significant step towards the Obama administration's vision of sending astronauts to Mars by the 2030s.  Bolden stated:

"The wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze the trail for human footprints on Mars."

Next up for the rover

Scientists will spend the next days to weeks preparing the rover for its first movement on the Red Planet.  The prime target being a 3-mile high (5 kilometer high) mountain inside the Gale Crater known as Aeolis Mons or Mount Sharp.  The mountain's material could preserve billions of years' of geological history which may reveal clues on Mars' wetter and warmer past.  Some believe the rover could even detect the signs of present day life, though NASA isn't counting on that.

The trip to Mount Sharp may take as long as one Earth year, as Scientists want to study the Gale Crater's terrain in great detail.

NASA's previous rovers Spirit and Opportunity landed in 2004.  Spirit stopped working two years ago, while Opportunity is still working on the 14-mile wide (23 kilometer wide) crater Endeavour.

Hundreds of spectators watch the landing in Times Square. 
CREDIT: John Minchillo-AP
Celebrations erupt from NASA's Spaceflight operations at JPL.
CREDIT: Brian van der Brug -AP
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped a photo of Curiosity and its parachute using the HiRISE camera. CREDIT: NASA/JPL/UA

 

The Tech-Stew Take Home

This is a momentous event for space exploration.  The Curiosity landing has shown that we are capable of achieving missions that are seemingly difficult if not impossible, giving the critics of space exploration a shining example of what we can accomplish if given the chance.  This mission is only the tip of the iceberg, as there will be much science to come from this mission, science that will unlock some of Mars' past secrets but potentially shifting our understanding of our place in the cosmos on this pale blue dot that we call home.  Scientists have never had the power and capability of a rover quite like Curiosity.  Work done on Curiosity's mission will set the foundation and pave the way for humanity to walk on the surface of Mars and beyond in the years ahead.

Source:  NASA/JPL, Washingtonpost.com


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