At about 1:31 EDT on August 6, the world held its breath. A minute later, as the wheels of NASA’s newest rover touched the ground, it cheered. Against incredible odds, we have made it to Mars again.
NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission was set in action on November 26, 2011, when the rover Curiosity was launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. After traveling over 300 million miles carrying the most advanced equipment ever sent to the Martian surface, Curiosity has landed safely and has already started sending images back to Earth. NASA hopes the rover’s on-board chemical laboratory will help it to determine whether Mars was ever able to sustain life and if it will ever be able to do so again in the future.
Curiosity’s final descent seemed almost impossible. Aptly named the “7 Minutes of Terror,” Curiosity’s landing sequence involved a complicated procedure with brand-new equipment. In order to slow down from 13,000 miles per hour to zero, the sequence started with a guided deceleration by the spacecraft, during which the heat shield reached up to 1,600 degrees. A parachute that had to withstand 65,000 pounds of force was deployed once the spacecraft reached about 900 mph. After the heat shield was released, eight rocket engines had to carefully align the landing equipment properly above the landing site. Finally, and possibly most impressively, a new sky crane landing system lowered the rover down using about 20 feet of cable to set it on the Martian surface without disturbing too much dust.
A successful landing was in no way guaranteed. Successful communication with the rover was even more questionable. Receiving communication from the rover depended not only on Curiosity’s safe descent and landing, but also the correct rotation of NASA’s Odyssey. NASA’s oldest Mars orbiter had to perform a never-before-executed rotation in a narrow window of time in order to catch Curiosity’s transmissions about its landing.
Curiosity’s landing and initial transmissions went off seemingly without a hitch. Within minutes, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) had received two different images from the rover, showing its wheels on the ground and its shadow against the Martian surface. News stations, live streams, blogs and Twitter users exploded with excitement alongside the JPL team as the first images were broadcast to the world.
Curiosity’s landing is monumental. The car-sized, six wheeled robot carries a full suite of advanced equipment that will help NASA survey Mars. The rover carries 10 science instruments, including cameras, chemical sensors and radiation sensors. It landed at a site called Gale Crater, which is particularly interesting because its low elevation makes it a likely spot for water to pool. Curiosity will try to uncover the history of water on Mars in this crater and complete initial tests. The mission is set to last one Mars year, or about 23 Earth months, giving Curiosity plenty of time to make its way towards the three-mile-tall Mount Sharp.
Curiosity lays the groundwork that is pivotal to the future success of the American space program. Not only will its research help determine the future of humans on Mars, but John Holdren, President Obama’s science advisor, says the rover represents the United States’ “continuing committemnt to science, technology and innovation” and stands as an “American point of pride.” President Obama has outlined a plan to send humans to Mars in the 2030s.
At a cost of $2.6 billion, NASA and Curiosity have once again proven the incredible power of the human desire to explore as well as America’s continued dedication to being a leader in science and technology. For less than $7 per American citizen and less than 18% of the London 2012 Olympics budget, we have done the incredible and sent the most advanced rover yet to Mars. Imagine what NASA could accomplish if it weren’t facing budget cuts to its already small budget.