NASA’s Curiosity Rover Lands on Mars
Early this morning we were treated to another feeling of pride as the Curiosity rover for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory made a successful landing on our neighbor in space.
I was part of the many who chose to stay up late and watch the coverage live on NASA’s website. It was fascinating watching the footage from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and seeing the scientists and technicians in action while Curiosity made its historic descent and landing.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory – descent and landing of Curiosity rover
Of course, Curiosity is not the first U.S. rover to successfully land on the Martian surface. The Sojourner rover as part of the Mars Pathfinder mission successfully landed and operated on Mars from July 4 – September 22, 1997. The Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity both landed on Mars in January of 2004. Spirit‘s wheels became stuck in the sand in January of 2010, and communication with it ended on March 22, 2010. As far as Opportunity, that rover is still operating on the surface of Mars.
Part of what makes the Curiosity rover so interesting is that this latest Martian rover is so much bigger than the previous two generations of Mars rovers. Weighing in at nearly one ton, Curiosity‘s size alone proved to be a major challenge for safely landing on the surface of Mars.
The problem really begins with the very thin atmosphere on the planet Mars. It would take a combination of a heat shield and a massive braking parachute to help slow the spacecraft for part of the descent. Because the thinness of the atmosphere would not sufficiently slow the spacecraft with a parachute, the spacecraft would have to use rocket motors for a powered descent down to the planet’s surface.
What makes Curiosity‘s landing really special is that a new technique was used for actually setting the rover onto the surface of Mars. The probe made a powered descent and hovered about 25 or so feet above the surface. The Curiosity rover was then lowered twenty feet in a technique called the “sky crane.” The rover was then gently set upon the surface. After touchdown, the cables to the probe were detached and the probe flew a safe distance away.
NASA animation and explanation of Curiosity‘s descent and landing – “7 Minutes of Terror”
And this descent and landing strategy worked perfectly.
It was another glorious achievement for everybody associated with NASA and the Mars Science Laboratory as the Curiosity rover successfully touched down on the surface of Mars.
Launching of the Atlas V rocket carrying the Mars Science Laboratory
The Mars Science Laboratory began with the successful launching of the rover on-board an Atlas V rocket on November 26, 2011 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Thirty-six weeks later, the rover successfully touched down on the planet and communicated with scientists back at NASA.
These rocket scientists are people who should be put on pedestals and treated like heroes. Instead of using muscle and athletic talent to amaze the crowds, these people used their brainpower (along with heavy math and science skills) and successfully launched a rocket that ultimately landed a mobile science laboratory on the surface of another planet. It’s still amazing to me that such a feat can be accomplished. Landing a rover on Mars. Wow!
Congratulations NASA on a job well done!