Monday, August 6, 2012

US back in space as Curiosity lands on Mars

 [Gazette Blog Editor's note: scroll down for a story on Arizona's role in the Curiosity mission.]

After eight years of planning and eight months of interplanetary travel, NASA's Mars Science Laboratory pulled off a touchdown of Super Bowl proportions, all by itself. It even sent pictures from the goal line.

The spacecraft plunged through Mars' atmosphere, fired up a rocket-powered platform and lowered the car-sized, 1-ton Curiosity rover to its landing spot in 96-mile-wide (154-kilometer-wide) Gale Crater. Then the platform flew off to its own crash landing, while Curiosity sent out a text message basically saying, "I made it!"

That message was relayed by the orbiting Mars Odyssey satellite back to Earth. A radio telescope in Australia picked up the message and sent it here to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. When the blips of data appeared on the screens at JPL's mission control, the room erupted in cheers and hugs.

Image: Mars pictures

A display at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory shows two of the thumbnail pictures transmitted from the Curiosity rover on the surface of the Mars. The left photo shows the shadow of Curiosity, while a wheel is visible in the right photo.
Because of the light-travel time between Mars and Earth, throngs of scientists and engineers — along with millions who were monitoring the action via television and the Internet — celebrated Curiosity's landing 14 minutes after it actually occurred.

Even the engineers who drew up the unprecedented plan for the landing admitted that it looked crazy. But the plan actually worked.

Minutes after the news of the landing broke, commentator Allen Chen brought more good news: "We have thumbnails!" Odyssey delivered pictures showing the view from hazard avoidance cameras mounted on the rover.

Super Bowl pride The touchdown marked a $2.5 billion triumph for what Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters, called "the Super Bowl of planetary exploration." Curiosity's primary mission is scheduled to last one full Martian year, or almost two Earth years — but scientists hope the nuclear-powered rover will keep going for years longer than that.

The successful landing sparked a swell of American pride for the mission team as well as for NASA and the White House. The biggest heart-swelling moment came during a post-landing news conference, when the blue-shirted team behind Curiosity's entry, descent and landing marched through the packed auditorium and high-fived their leaders.

"EDL! EDL!" the flag-waving troop chanted, but it might as well have been "USA! USA!"

President Barack Obama's science adviser, John Holdren, said that if anyone had any doubts about American technological leadership, "there's a one-ton, car-sized piece of American ingenuity, and it's sitting on the surface of Mars right now, and it certainly should put any such doubts to rest."

Image: Mission control
Engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory hug each other after hearing of the Curiosity rover's successful landing on Mars on Sunday night.
Obama himself issued a late-night statement via Twitter: "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 Administrator Charles Bolden said the successful landing marked a significant step toward the Obama administration's vision of sending astronauts to Mars and its moons in the 2030s. "The wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze the trail for human footprints on Mars," Bolden told reporters.
Charles Elachi, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said Sunday night's spectacle was a bargain, even at $2.5 billion. "This movie cost you less than 7 bucks per American citizen," he said. Later, John Grotzinger, the mission's project scientist, quipped, "That's a movie I want to see."
Driving to a mountain
Curiosity is the biggest and most capable robotic laboratory ever sent to another celestial body: Its 10 scientific instruments are designed to study the chemistry of Mars' rocks, soil and atmosphere and determine whether the Red Planet had the right stuff to be habitable in ancient times.

The rover's prime target is a 3-mile-high (5-kilometer-high) mountain inside the crater, known as Aeolis Mons or Mount Sharp. The mountain's layers of rock could preserve billions of years' worth of geological history, shedding light on the planet's transition from its warmer, wetter past to its current cold, dry climate.

Some scientists think Curiosity could even detect the signs of present-day life, although NASA doesn't go that far.

Soon after the landing, engineers began activating the systems onboard the rover. It could take weeks to get everything up and running for the first drive. Grotzinger said the journey to Mount Sharp might require one Earth year, because scientists want to take their time studying Gale Crater's terrain. Pete Theisinger, the mission's project manager, seconded the sentiment for going slow: "We have a priceless asset, and we are not going to ... screw it up."

Theisinger recalled that he was on the job when NASA's Spirit and Opportunity rovers landed on the Red Planet in 2004. "I never thought I would ever say this, but this is better than that," he said. Spirit gave up the ghost two years ago, but Opportunity is still at work on the rim of a 14-mile-wide (23-kilometer-wide) crater called Endeavour.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If there was Media in Mars, how would they have seen the mars landing of Curiosity!
Read it in my blog