NASA's most advanced Mars rover Curiosity has landed on the Red Planet. The one-ton rover, hanging by ropes from a rocket backpack, touched down onto Mars at 1:31 a.m. EDT Monday (Aug. 6, 2012) to end a 36-week flight and begin a two-year investigation.
The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft that carried Curiosity succeeded in every step of the most complex landing ever attempted on Mars, including the final severing of the bridle cords and flyaway maneuver of the rocket backpack.
"Today, the wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze the trail for human footprints on Mars. Curiosity, the most sophisticated rover ever built, is now on the surface of the Red Planet, where it will seek to answer age-old questions about whether life ever existed on Mars -- or if the planet can sustain life in the future," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "This is an amazing achievement, made possible by a team of scientists and engineers from around the world and led by the extraordinary men and women of NASA and our Jet Propulsion Laboratory. President Obama has laid out a bold vision for sending humans to Mars in the mid-2030's, and today's landing marks a significant step toward achieving this goal."
Curiosity landed at 10:32 p.m. Aug. 5, PDT, (1:32 a.m. EDT Aug. 6) near the foot of a mountain three miles tall and 96 miles in diameter inside Gale Crater. During a nearly two-year prime mission, the rover will investigate whether the region ever offered conditions favorable for microbial life.
"The Seven Minutes of Terror has turned into the Seven Minutes of Triumph," said NASA Associate Administrator for Science John Grunsfeld. "My immense joy in the success of this mission is matched only by overwhelming pride I feel for the women and men of the mission's team."
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 in Pasadena, Calif. "The landing takes us past the most hazardous moments for this project, and begins a new and exciting mission to pursue its scientific objectives."
Confirmation of Curiosity's successful landing came in communications relayed by NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter and received by the Canberra, Australia, antenna station of NASA's Deep Space Network.
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 mission is managed by JPL for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The rover was designed, developed and assembled at JPL. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. For more information on the mission, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/mars and http://marsprogram.jpl.nasa.gov/msl .
The following are mission updates from NASA leading up to the successful landing.
Curiosity Lands on Mars -- August 6, 2012 1:32 AM
NASA's Curiosity rover has landed on Mars! Its descent-stage retrorockets fired, guiding it to the surface. Nylon cords lowered the rover to the ground in the "sky crane" maneuver. When the spacecraft sensed touchdown, the connecting cords were severed, and the descent stage flew out of the way. The time of day at the landing site is mid-afternoon -- about 3 p.m. local Mars time at Gale Crater. The time at JPL's mission control is about 10:31 p.m. Aug. 5 PDT (early morning EDT).
Parachute Pops Open -- August 6, 2012 1:29 AM
The parachute guiding NASA's Mars Science Laboratory to the surface of Mars has opened. At this point, the rover has already slowed down considerably due to friction with the atmosphere. The parachute, which is 51 feet (nearly 16 meters) in diameter, deploys about 254 seconds after entry, at an altitude of about 7 miles (11 kilometers) and a velocity of about 900 mph (about 405 meters per second).
Sailing Through the Martian Atmosphere -- August 6, 2012 1:25 AM
NASA's Mars Science Laboratory has entered the Martian atmosphere. The top of Mars' atmosphere is a gradual transition to interplanetary space, not a sharp boundary. In addition, the entry point is not directly above the landing site. While descending from that altitude to the surface, the spacecraft will also be traveling eastward relative to the Mars surface, covering a ground-track distance of about 390 miles (about 630 kilometers) between the atmospheric entry point and the touchdown target. Two tungsten weights will be released to shift the spacecraft's center of mass and give it the lift it needs to fly through the atmosphere.
Curiosity Sheds Its Cruise Stage -- August 6, 2012 1:15 AM
NASA's Mars Science Laboratory carrying the Curiosity rover has separated from the cruise stage that carried it from Earth to the Red Planet. The rover, snug between a protective back shell and heat shield, is about 10 minutes away from entering the Martian atmosphere and about 17 minutes away from landing. Thrusters on the back shell are orienting the spacecraft so the heat shield faces forward in preparation for entering the atmosphere. At this stage, the Mars Science Laboratory Entry, Descent and Landing Instrument (MEDLI) suite begins taking measurements related to the performance of the heat shield that will aid in the design of future missions.
Curiosity Set for Mars Landing Tonight -- August 5, 2012 10:10 PM
Its approximately 352 million mile (567 million kilometer), 36-week journey from Earth nearly complete, NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft and its Curiosity rover are "all systems go" for touchdown in Mars' Gale Crater tonight at 10:31 p.m. PDT (1:31 a.m. EDT Aug. 6). This morning, flight controllers decided to forgo the sixth and final opportunity on the mission calendar for a course-correction maneuver. The spacecraft is headed for its target entry point at the top of Mars' atmosphere precisely enough that the maneuver was deemed unnecessary. In addition, this afternoon, mission controllers determined that no further updates are necessary to the onboard information the spacecraft will use during its autonomous control of MSL's entry, descent and landing. Parameters on a motion tracker were adjusted Saturday for fine-tuning determination of the spacecraft's orientation during its descent. As of 6:18 p.m. PDT (9:18 p.m. EDT), MSL was approximately 36,000 miles (57,936 kilometers) from Mars, traveling at a speed of about 8,400 mph (about 3,755 meters per second).
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