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NASA's Curiosity landing blazes trail for humans on Mars

An artist's rendition of Curiosity, the largest and most technologically advanced rover to land on Mars. NASA calls the robot, that landed on August 5th, 2012, a geologist and chemist in one. Image Credit- NASA/JPL-Caltech.

NASA celebrated today as their rover Curiosity returned the first clear photos of its new home on Mars. 

The most technologically advanced space robot ever built -- the 5 foot tall Curiosity contains a total of 10 scientific instruments, including a robotic arm with a power drill -- landed on Mars last night, beginning a mission eight years in the making to search for signs of past life on the Red planet.

An image taken by rover Curiosity on August 6, 2012 of Mount Sharp on Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

US President Barack Obama praised NASA’s successful landing of the car-sized rover Curiosity that travelled 570 million-km over eight months to reach our neighbour planet. 

"Tonight, on the planet Mars, the United States of America made history," Obama said. 

Equipped with ten instruments, including a laser that can zap rocks from a distance and a mobile organic chemistry lab, Curiosity gives scientists the opportunity to learn more than they ever have about Mars. 

It also furthers the possibility of one day sending humans to Mars to investigate first-hand. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden noted that Obama wants to be able to send humans to Mars by the 2030s. 

The Curiosity Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) captured the rover's descent to the surface of the Red Planet. The instrument shot 4 fps video from heatshield separation to the ground. Source: YouTube.

“Today, the wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze the trail for human footprints on Mars,” Bolden said at a press conference immediately following the release of the first few images from a new, and until now, unexplored part of Mars.

Secrets of a Martian mountain

Curiosity landed next to a strip of dunes in Gale Crater, a desirable destination given signs that water, a key requirement for life as we know it, once carved channels along the crater’s wall. At the centre of the 154-km-wide crater rests Mount Sharp, a 5.8 kilometre mountain that rivals Mount Kilimanjaro in height. Scientists believe the mountain’s layers of sediment could hold clues to the planet’s ancient history, including whether it held microbial life. 

Able to roll over obstacles 2 feet high and travel up to about 200 metres per day, the nuclear powered mobile laboratory will eventually be digging, drilling and investigating the Martian landscape for at least the next two years in search of the building blocks of life: carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulphur and oxygen. 

But before the exploration begins, scientists at NASA intend to perform a few weeks of health checks on the machine that just survived the most epic landing in the history of robotic space travel. 

This view of Gale Crater is made up of a combination of data from three Mars orbiters. The circle in the top left corner indicates the area where scientists aimed Curiosity’s landing. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/MSSS.

Surviving seven minutes of terror

Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California twitched and hunched forward nervously as they waited for confirmations that Curiosity had survived the technological challenge of landing on the surface of Mars. 

Scientists had dubbed the descent into the Martian atmosphere the “seven minutes of terror” due to the intricate and tightly choreographed maneuvers required for a safe landing, including slowing down from 20,921 km per hour to zero in just a few minutes.

A heat-shield protected the one-tonne Curiosity from a 1600 degrees Celsius blaze that engulfed it at the force of impact with the Martian atmosphere.

Because the Martian atmosphere is so thin, a supersonic parachute, weighing only 100 pounds but able to withstand 65,000 pounds of pressure, then needed to slow down its descent, but even it could only do so much. To enable a safe landing, NASA equipped the rover with a “rocket-propelled backpack” to lower it down to the surface on cables. 

Photo of parachute landing

Today NASA released a photo of the parachute landing that was snapped by a spacecraft that’s been orbiting Mars for six years. In a testament to advanced planning, the commands to take the photo had to be uploaded 72 hours prior. 

"Guess you could consider us the closest thing to paparazzi on Mars," said Sarah Milkovich, High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) investigation scientist at NASA's JPL.

"We definitely caught NASA's newest celebrity in the act." 

Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univiversity of Arizona.

Astronomer, lecturer, and author Phil Plait, who blogs for the popular Discover Magazine blog Bad Astronomy, wrote about the “sheer amazingness” of capturing a photo of the 16-metre-wide parachute. 

“Here we have a picture taken by a camera on board a space probe that’s been orbiting Mars for six years, reset and re-aimed by programmers hundreds of millions of kilometers away using math and science pioneered centuries ago, so that it could catch the fleeting view of another machine we humans flung across space, traveling hundreds of million of kilometers to another world at mind-bending speeds, only to gently – and perfectly – touch down on the surface mere minutes later.”

NASA erupts in cheers

The landing depended on the perfect execution of a computer already given its commands, while scientists could only wait for a delayed signal back on Earth on how it all went. It takes fourteen minutes for a signal to reach Earth from Mars. 

Engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California celebrate the landing of NASA's rover Curiosity on Mars. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

When word of the safe landing reached Earth, scientists at NASA jumped out of their chairs and threw their hands up in the air in joy, erupting in cheers, hugs and tears.

A few minutes later they received the first three photos taken by Curiosity, black-and-white images of the rover’s wheel on the rocky surface of Mars.

“I can’t believe this. This is unbelievable,” said Allen Chen, the deputy head of the rover’s descent and landing team.

In Times Square, hundreds gathered to watch the NASA live stream of the team in California overseeing the landing. When NASA released the images online, their website crashed due to an unprecedented number of hits. 

Mission manager at NASA's JPL Michael Watkins said that he loves these first few images the most. 

“Here we are seeing a part of Mars that we've never seen before,” he said in a news conference this morning.

Better resolution photos should be arriving in the next few days along with black-and-white panoramas and the first colour images.

Working on Mars time

Hundreds of thousands of scientists and engineers contributed to this $2.5 billion mission to Mars. All together seven countries collaborated, including Canada, Finland, Spain, Russia, France, Germany, and the United States.

Scientists at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) spent years working on a device aboard Curiosity. A new alpha particle X-ray spectrometer, designed by a team of researchers at Guelph University in Ontario, will measure chemicals in the rocks.

Director-general of space exploration at CSA Gilles Leclerc told the Associated Press that workers celebrated the landing last night.

“Well, we’re Canadians, eh? So it was less enthusiastic but I would say it was as emotional as it was in the U.S. But there were cheers indeed and it was again a great moment.”

There are 300 or more engineers and 400 scientists working on Curiosity’s mission on Mars. Watkins called it a kind of immersion training, as the team will not only be learning how to operate the vehicle, but how to work with each other. 

They will be working on Mars time for the next three months and experiencing a kind of inter-planetary jet lag as a day on Mars is 40 minutes longer than a day on Earth.

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