Sunday, August 5, 2012

NASA Rover Curiosity Lands On Mars

"Touchdown confirmed," said engineer Allen Chen. "We're safe on Mars."

"We landed in a nice flat spot. Beautiful, really beautiful," said engineer Adam Steltzner, who led the team that devised the tricky landing routine.

"The wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze the trail for human footprints on Mars," said NASA chief Charles Bolden.

President Barack Obama lauded the landing in a statement, calling it "an unprecedented feat of technology that will stand as a point of national pride far into the future."


WTOP:
PASADENA, Calif. (AP) - NASA's most high-tech Mars rover on Sunday zeroed in on the red planet during a "seven minutes of terror" plummet through the atmosphere.

The $2.5 billion Curiosity rover hit the top of the Martian atmosphere at 13,000 mph and was slowly lowered by cables inside a massive crater in the final few seconds.


Sunday's touchdown attempt was especially intense because NASA is testing a brand new landing technique. Due to the communication delay between Mars and Earth, Curiosity will be on autopilot. There's also extra pressure because budget woes have forced NASA to rejigger its Mars exploration roadmap.

The voyage to Mars took over eight months and spanned 352 million miles. The trickiest part of the journey? The landing. Because Curiosity weighs nearly a ton, engineers drummed up a new and more controlled way to set the rover down. The last Mars rovers, twins Spirit and Opportunity, were cocooned in air bags and bounced to a stop in 2004.

The plans for Curiosity called for a series of braking tricks, similar to those used by the space shuttle, and a supersonic parachute to slow it down. Next: Ditch the heat shield used for the fiery descent.

And in a new twist, engineers came up with a way to lower the rover by cable from a hovering rocket-powered backpack. At touchdown, the cords cut and the rocket stage crashes a distance away.

Curiosity was launched to study whether the Martian environment ever had conditions suitable for microbial life. The nuclear-powered rover, the size of a small car, is packed with scientific tools, cameras and a weather station. It sports a robotic arm with a power drill, a laser that can zap distant rocks, a chemistry lab to sniff for the chemical building blocks of life and a detector to measure dangerous radiation on the surface.

It also tracked radiation levels during the journey to help NASA better understand the risks astronauts could face on a future manned trip.

The landing site near Mars' equator was picked because there are signs of water everywhere, meeting one of the requirements for life as we know it. Inside Gale Crater is a 3-mile-high mountain, and images from space show the base appears rich in minerals that formed in the presence of water.

The crater was gouged by a meteor impact more than 3 billion years ago. Over time, scientists believe sediments filled in the 96-mile-wide crater and winds sculpted the 3-mile-high mountain, called Mount Sharp.


Images from space reveal signs of water in the lower layers of the mountain, including mineral signatures of clays and sulfate salts, which form in the presence of water. Life as we know it needs more than just water. It also needs nutrients and energy.

During its two-year mission, the NASA rover Curiosity will trek to the lower flanks of the mountain in search of the carbon-based building blocks of life. Previous trips to Mars have uncovered ice near the Martian north pole and evidence that water once flowed when the planet was wetter and toastier unlike today's harsh, frigid desert environment.

Curiosity's goal: To scour for basic ingredients essential for life, including carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, sulfur and oxygen. It's not equipped to search for living or fossil microorganisms. To get a definitive answer, a future mission needs to fly Martian rocks and soil back to Earth to be examined by powerful laboratories.


The mission comes as NASA retools its Mars exploration strategy. Faced with tough economic times, the space agency pulled out of partnership with the European Space Agency to land a rock-collecting rover in 2018. The Europeans have since teamed with the Russians as NASA decides on a new roadmap.

Despite Mars' reputation as a spacecraft graveyard, humans continue their love affair with the planet, lobbing spacecraft in search of clues about its early history. Out of more than three dozen attempts - flybys, orbiters and landings - by the U.S., Soviet Union, Europe and Japan since the 1960s, more than half have ended disastrously.

One NASA rover that defied expectations is Opportunity, which is still busy wheeling around the rim of a crater in the Martian southern hemisphere eight years later.



More information:
» YouTube: Curiosity's "Seven Minutes of Terror"
» Wired: Sci-Fi Short Terraform

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