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NASA's Curiosity Science Rover Lands on Mars



NASA's Curiosity science rover lands on Mars

NASA's Curiosity science rover survived a risky landing to touch down on Mars just after 5:30 a.m. GMT on Monday. The $2.5 billion project is part of a two-year mission to discover whether Mars ever hosted the ingredients for life.

By Mark Thompson (video) News Wires (text)

France 24, August 6, 2012

AP -

In a show of technological wizardry, the robotic explorer Curiosity blazed through the pink skies of Mars, steering itself to a gentle landing inside a giant crater for the most ambitious dig yet into the red planetís past.

Cheers and applause echoed through the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory late Sunday after the most high-tech interplanetary rover ever built signaled it had survived a harrowing plunge through the thin Mars atmosphere.

"Touchdown confirmed," said engineer Allen Chen. "Weíre safe on Mars."

Minutes after the landing signal reached Earth at 10:32 p.m. PDT (0532GMT), Curiosity beamed back the first black-and-white pictures from inside the crater showing its wheel and its shadow, cast by the afternoon sun.

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

It was NASAís seventh landing on Earthís neighbor; many other attempts by the U.S. and other countries to zip past, circle or set down on Mars have gone awry.

The arrival was an engineering tour de force, debuting never-before-tried acrobatics packed into "seven minutes of terror" as Curiosity sliced through the Martian atmosphere at 13,000 mph (21,000 kph).

In a Hollywood-style finish, cables delicately lowered the rover to the ground at a snail-paced 2 mph (3 kph). A video camera was set to capture the most dramatic moments - which would give earthlings their first glimpse of a touchdown on another world.

Celebrations by the mission team were so joyous over the next hour that JPL Director Charles Elachi had to plead for calm in order to hold a press conference. He compared the team to athletic teams that go to the Olympics.

"This team came back with the gold," he said.

The extraterrestrial feat injected a much-needed boost to NASA, which is debating whether it can afford another Mars landing this decade. At a budget-busting $2.5 billion (£2 billion), Curiosity is the priciest gamble yet, which scientists hope will pay off with a bonanza of discoveries.

"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."

Over the next two years, Curiosity will drive over to a mountain rising from the crater floor, poke into rocks and scoop up rust-tinted soil to see if the region ever had the right environment for microscopic organisms to thrive. Itís the latest chapter in the long-running quest to find out whether primitive life arose early in the planetís history.

The voyage to Mars took more than eight months and spanned 352 million miles (566 million kilometers). 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.

Curiosity relied on a series of braking tricks, similar to those used by the space shuttle, a heat shield and a supersonic parachute to slow down as it punched through the atmosphere.

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 crashed a distance away.

The nuclear-powered Curiosity, 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.

Over the next several days, Curiosity was expected to send back the first color pictures. After several weeks of health checkups, the six-wheel rover could take its first short drive and flex its robotic arm.

The landing site near Marsí equator was picked because there are signs of past water everywhere, meeting one of the requirements for life as we know it. Inside Gale Crater is a 3-mile-high (5-kilometer-high) mountain, and images from space show the base appears rich in minerals that formed in the presence of water.

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 todayís harsh, frigid desert environment.

Curiosityís goal: to scour for basic ingredients essential for life including carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, sulfur and oxygen. Itís 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 Marsí 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.

 

NASA rover Curiosity makes historic Mars landing, beams back photos

 

By Steve Gorman and Irene Klotz |

Reuters
Ė August 6, 2012

 


PASADENA, California (Reuters) -

NASA's Mars science rover Curiosity performed a daredevil descent through pink Martian skies late on Sunday to clinch an historic landing inside an ancient crater, ready to search for signs the Red Planet may once have harbored key ingredients for life.

Mission controllers burst into applause and cheers as they received signals confirming that the car-sized rover had survived a perilous seven-minute descent NASA called the most elaborate and difficult feat in the annals of robotic spaceflight.

Engineers said the tricky landing sequence, combining a giant parachute with a rocket-pack that lowered the rover to the Martian surface on a tether, allowed for zero margin for error.

"I can't believe this. This is unbelievable," enthused Allen Chen, the deputy head of the rover's descent and landing team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles.

Moments later, Curiosity beamed back its first three images from the Martian surface, one of them showing a wheel of the vehicle and the rover's shadow cast on the rocky terrain.

NASA put the official landing time of Curiosity, touted as the first full-fledged mobile science laboratory sent to a distant world, at 10:32 p.m. Pacific time (1:32 a.m. EDT/0532 GMT).

The landing marked a much-welcome success and a major milestone for a U.S. space agency beset by budget cuts and the recent cancellation of its space shuttle program, NASA's centerpiece for 30 years.

The $2.5 billion Curiosity project, formally called the Mars Science Laboratory, is NASA's first astrobiology mission since the 1970s-era Viking probes.

"It's an enormous step forward in planetary exploration. Nobody has ever done anything like this," said John Holdren, the top science advisor to President Barack Obama, who was visiting JPL for the event. "It was an incredible performance."

Obama himself issued a statement hailing the Curiosity landing as "an unprecedented feat of technology that will stand as a point of national pride far into the future."

"It proves that even the longest of odds are no match for our unique blend of ingenuity and determination," he said.

CHECKUP FOR CURIOSITY BEFORE IT ROVES

While Curiosity rover appears to have landed intact, its exact condition was still to be ascertained.

NASA plans to put the one-ton, six-wheeled, nuclear-powered rover and its sophisticated instruments through several weeks of engineering checks before starting its two-year surface mission in earnest.

"We're going to make sure that we're firing on all cylinders before we blaze out across the plains," lead scientist John Grotzinger said.

The rover's precise location had yet to be determined, but NASA said it came to rest in its planned landing zone near the foot of a tall mountain rising from the floor of a vast impact basin called Gale Crater, in Mars' southern hemisphere.

Launched on November 26 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, the robotic lab sailed through space for more than eight months, covering 352 million miles (566 million km), before piercing Mars' thin atmosphere at 13,000 miles per hour -- 17 times the speed of sound -- and starting its descent.

Encased in a protective capsule-like shell, the craft utilized a first-of-its kind automated flight-entry system to sharply reduce its speed.

Then the probe rode a huge, supersonic parachute into the lower atmosphere before a jet-powered backpack NASA called a "sky crane" carried Curiosity most of the rest of the way to its destination, lowering it to the ground by nylon tethers.

'SEVEN MINUTES OF TERROR'

When the rover's wheels were planted firmly on the ground, the cords were cut and the sky crane flew a safe distance away and crashed.

The sequence also involved 79 pyrotechnic detonations to release exterior ballast weights, open the parachute, separate the heat shield, detach the craft's back shell, jettison the parachute and other functions. The failure of any one of those would have doomed the landing, JPL engineers said.

NASA sardonically referred the unorthodox seven-minute descent and landing sequence as "seven minutes of terror."

With a 14-minute delay in the time it takes for radio waves from Earth to reach Mars 154 million miles (248 million km) away, NASA engineers had little to do during Curiosity's descent but anxiously track its progress.

By the time they received radio confirmation of Curiosity's safe landing, relayed to Earth by a NASA satellite orbiting Mars, the craft already had been on the ground for seven minutes.

NASA engineers said the intricate and elaborate landing system used by Curiosity was necessary because of its size and weight.

Over twice as large and five times heavier than either of the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity that landed on Mars in 2004, Curiosity weighed too much to be bounced to the surface in airbags or fly itself all the way down with rocket thrusters -- systems successfully used by six previous NASA landers, engineers said.

Curiosity is designed to spend the next two years exploring Gale Crater and an unusual 3-mile- (5 km-) high mountain consisting of what appears to be sediments rising from the crater's floor.

Its primary mission is to look for evidence that Mars - the planet most similar to Earth - may have once hosted the basic building blocks necessary for microbial life to evolve.

The rover comes equipped with an array of sophisticated instruments capable of analyzing samples of soil, rocks and atmosphere on the spot and beaming results back to Earth.

One is a laser gun that can zap a rock from 23 feet away to create a spark whose spectral image is analyzed by a special telescope to discern the mineral's chemical composition.

Mission controllers were joined by 1,400 scientists, engineers and dignitaries who tensely waited at JPL to learn Curiosity's fate, among them film star Morgan Freeman, television's "Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek, comic actor Seth Green and actress June Lockhart of "Lost in Space" fame. Another 5,000 people watched from the nearby California Institute of Technology, the academic home of JPL.

"There are many out in the community who say that NASA has lost its way, that we don't know how to explore, that we've lost our moxie. I think it's fair to say that NASA knows how to explore, we've been exploring and we're on Mars," former astronaut and NASA's associate administrator for science, John Grunsfeld, told reporters shortly after the touchdown.

Click image for more photos

(Damian Dovarganes/AP Photo) (Damian Dovarganes/AP Photo)

(Editing by W Simon)






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