PASADENA, Calif. — Curiosity has phoned home from the dusty surface of Mars.
Radio signals and images received at 10:32 p.m. PDT on August 5 by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory confirm that the rover has reached Mars’ Gale Crater, Curiosity’s intended destination after an 8.5-month journey of 567 million kilometers.
Scientists and engineers packed into the JPL mission control room erupted in cheers upon receiving word that the one-ton, six-wheeled rover had survived a complicated sequence of maneuvers that ferried the spacecraft from the top of the Martian atmosphere to the floor of the crater — a descent covering 640 kilometers — in just seven minutes.
Dubbed “seven minutes of terror” by NASA engineers, Curiosity’s touchdown was the interplanetary equivalent of a high-flying, hypersonic circus act, a performance that included firing 76 pyrotechnic charges, dropping 150 kilograms of tungsten, deploying a massive parachute and being lowered to the planet’s surface from a rocket-powered sky crane.
“It’s like us launching out of Kennedy Space Center, sending something here to the Rose Bowl, and having it land on the 50-yard line on a Frisbee,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.
Like any considerate traveler, the rover’s first task after phoning home with news of its safe arrival was to send pictures. A thumbnail image from Curiosity, relayed through the Mars Odyssey Orbiter, depicted one of the rover’s wheels resting on Mars.
Now, the rover’s journey on the Red Planet can begin, a trek that will take it from the floor of Gale Crater to the slopes of Mount Sharp, the massive mountain rising from the crater’s depths. There, this most advanced rover ever will search for organic compounds and signs of life-friendly environments, while reading in the crater’s layers a story of Martian history. All along the way, the rover will stamp “JPL” into Mars’ reddish sands in Morse code, a message engineers imprinted into its tire treads.
Landing Curiosity successfully is “one of the greatest feats in planetary exploration ever,” says Doug McCuistion, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. “It shows the leadership that the United States has had in the exploration of Mars.”
The $2.5 billion rover, probably the last mission of its size to launch in this decade, is crucial for the continuing success of NASA’s Mars program. “Our nation has had a continuous presence on Mars for 15 years,” says Charles Elachi, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “It is a great day; it is a great moment.”
Curiosity’s experiments will take several steps toward determining if Mars’ early environment was warmer and wetter billions of years ago, as scientists suspect, and answering the question of whether life ever evolved on the planet.
“One of the main reasons for going there is to figure out whether life ever started,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. “My conclusion would be that life is easy, it’s a natural process, and that the universe is just littered with places that support life.”
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One of the biggest steps in sending a robotic rover to Mars is deciding where it’s going to land. Choosing Curiosity’s target on the Red Planet involved whittling down dozens of candidate sites, based on what scientists guessed the rover could learn within roaming distance of each one. In the end, NASA went with the recommendation of Ryan Anderson, a 27-year-old postdoctoral fellow at the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Ariz., who started studying Gale Crater (below) in 2007 as a graduate student at Cornell University. By 2010, he’d published a massive paper with faculty member Jim Bell describing the crater’s geologic features and proposing possible rover itineraries. That work, plus discussions of pros and cons at landing site workshops, helped put the crater on the landing-site shortlist. “There were a bunch of other people who were interested in Gale Crater,” Anderson says. “But I was the only one who had a graduate student’s amount of time to look at it.” Now Anderson is stepping into the role of team member on the mission as a collaborator on the rover’s ChemCam instrument.