Pasadena, California: After 350 million miles of travel through interplanetary space, NASA’s Mars rover ‘Curiosity’ landed on the Red Planet shortly after 0531 GMT (11.01 am IST) on Monday.
Dubbed as the biggest scientific mission of the decade, it took an epic 8-1/2 months for the Curiosity to make the arduous journey from Earth to Mars.
Immediately after the Martian late afternoon landing inside a vast, ancient impact crater, the rover sent the first pictures. “It’s the wheel!” exclaimed one of the NASA scientists on seeing the picture of one of the wheels of the rover. Other scientists at Mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles were seen hugging each other for having achieved what seemed impossible.
Another picture arrived soon, a high resolution image showing the horizon and dust particles on the camera.
Also, a video camera aboard the rover will capture the most dramatic minutes for the first filming of a landing on another planet.
The signals from mars are being relayed via Odyssey satellite to earth as the red planet is on the far side of the Sun from Earth, 154 million miles (1.7 astronomical units) away.
The atmospheric pressure on Mars is about 1/100th that on Earth. It is made of carbon dioxide (95.3%), nitrogen (2.7%) and argon (1.6%). Surface winds are typically up to 20 miles per hour, with gusts up to 90mph.
The complicated landing for the Curiosity rover was so risky that was been described as ‘seven minutes of terror’ — the time it took to go from 13,000 mph (20,920 kph) to a complete stop.
Curiosity During the entry, landing and descent phase, the nuclear powered rover was assisted by 76 pyrotechnic charges that were fired to release weights and the parachute.
The Curiosity shed twin 75kg tungsten weights near the surface to get aerodynamic lift – to glide to the surface rather than risking a hard landing.
The most sophisticated mobile science lab ever sent out of Earth’s atmosphere, the spacecraft, encased in a capsule-like shell, flew on auto pilot and was guided by a computer packed with pre-programmed instructions.
What’s Inside the Rover
The rover, formally called the Mars Science Lab, is equipped with an array of sophisticated chemistry and geology instruments capable of analyzing samples of soil, rocks and atmosphere on the spot and beaming results back to scientists on Earth.
One is a laser gun that can zap a rock from 23 feet (7 meters) away to create a spark whose spectral image is analyzed by a special telescope to discern the mineral’s chemical composition.
Mars is the chief component of NASA’s long-term deep space exploration plans. Curiosity, the space agency’s first astrobiology mission since the 1970s-era Viking probes, is designed primarily to search for evidence that the planet most similar to Earth may once have harboured the necessary building blocks for microbial life to evolve.
NASA officials told reporters at a pre-landing news conference Sunday that the spacecraft was functioning properly as it sped toward its target.
Curiosity carries 10 science instruments with a total mass 15 times as large as the science payloads on the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Some of the tools are the first of their kind on Mars, such as a laser-firing instrument for checking elemental composition of rocks from a distance.
The rover will use a drill and scoop at the end of its robotic arm to gather soil and powdered samples of rock interiors, then sieve and parcel out these samples into analytical laboratory instruments inside the rover.
To handle this science toolkit, Curiosity is twice as long and five times as heavy as Spirit or Opportunity. The Gale Crater landing site places the rover within driving distance of layers of the crater’s interior mountain. Observations from orbit have identified clay and sulfate minerals in the lower layers, indicating a wet history.
The landing site was 154 million miles from home, enough distance that the spacecraft’s elaborate landing sequence had to be automated.
Curiosity returned its first view of Mars, a wide-angle scene of rocky ground near the front of the rover. More images are anticipated in the next several days as the mission blends observations of the landing site with activities to configure the rover for work and check the performance of its instruments and mechanisms.
“Our Curiosity is talking to us from the surface of Mars,” said MSL Project Manager Peter Theisinger of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. “The landing takes us past the most hazardous moments for this project, and begins a new and exciting mission to pursue its scientific objectives.”
Over the first week, Curiosity is to deploy its main antenna, raise a mast containing cameras, a rock-vaporizing laser and other instruments, and take its first panoramic shot of its surroundings.
NASA will spend the first month checking out Curiosity. The first drive could occur early next month. The rover would not scoop its first sample of Martian soil until mid-September at the earliest, and the first drilling into rock would occur in October or November.
Because Curiosity is powered by electricity generated from the heat of a chunk of plutonium, it could continue operating for years, perhaps decades, in exploring the 96-mile-wide crater where it has landed.