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Touchdown! Curiosity lands safely on Mars

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August 5, 2012

NASA's Mars lander Curiosity has landed safely on Mars (Image: NASA)

NASA's Mars lander Curiosity has landed safely on Mars (Image: NASA)

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NASA's Mars lander Curiosity has landed safely on Mars. After a 253-day voyage punctuated by a dramatic plunge through the Martian atmosphere, the nuclear-powered rover has reported to mission control that it is on the ground and systems are nominal. The landing occurred at 10:31 p.m. U.S. PDT (August 6, 05:31 GMT) plus or minus a minute. The landing site was near the base of Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater, 4.6 degrees south latitude, 137.4 degrees east longitude. This marks the beginning of a two-year mission to seek out places where life may have existed on Mars – or may yet exist today.

Curiosity is the most ambitious Mars landing mission to date. Launched by NASA atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on November 26, 2011, the US$2.5 billion mission is intended to study Gale Crater for past and present signs of habitable environments where life might have, or does exist.

At a current distance of 154 million miles (248 million km), the time it took for the signal confirming the lander's successful touchdown took 13.8 minutes to reach Flight Control. Because of this lag, the landing had to be done entirely under automatic control. This in itself was enough to instill a severe case of nerves in Mission Control members at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

When that automatic control had to operate while slamming into the Martian atmosphere at 13,200 mph (5,900 mps) with deceleration forces of up to 11 g’s, control an Entry vehicle with a revolutionary heat shield capable of flying like a lifting body, deploy a supersonic parachute at exactly the right moment, jettison the shield and aeroshell seconds later and then drop the Curiosity rover gently to the surface using a rocket powered sky crane, then it's understandable if those nerves became seriously jangled. The purpose of all of this was to bring Curiosity safely to the surface of Mars – and it worked.

Here's NASA's official update marking the historic landing:

"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)."

Curiosity is itself a record breaker, being the largest rover ever sent to the Red Planet. The size of a 4x4, it’s 9 feet, 10 inches (3.0 m) long, stands 7 feet (2.1 m) tall with its mast extended and weighs 1,982 pounds (899 kg). And if that isn’t enough, it is nuclear powered with a radioisotope thermoelectric generator cranking out 2,700 watts and lithium-ion batteries for backup.

Curiosity carries ten science experiments as part of its 165 pound (75 kg) c(MLS). Its equipment includes a mast with high-definition cameras, a robotic arm for collecting samples and a laser that is powerful enough to vaporize rock for spectrographic analysis. The MLS also has the most sophisticated laboratory ever sent to Mars to seek signs of water and analyze soil and rock samples.

Curiosity’s primary mission is scheduled to last one Martian year (98 weeks), during which it will roam around Gale Crater carrying out experiments and seeking areas where life may exist. Having survived the landing, it must now survive hard UV and other radiation, highly corrosive soil, dust storms far more violent than any on Earth and temperatures ranging from -130° F to 32° F (-90° C to 0° C). That’s a lot for any rover to go through, but if the careers of Curiosity’s predecessors such as Opportunity are any indicator, surviving the landing may be the scary prelude to a long, fruitful career.

Source: NASA

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past.   All articles by David Szondy
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24 Comments

When will NASA make a wind powered Mars probe?

Slowburn
6th August, 2012 @ 03:59 am PDT

wohoo!

Renzo Prellellini
6th August, 2012 @ 04:10 am PDT

It's strange that so much money is spent looking for life on a planet that has such an uninhabitable atmosphere!!!

"it must now survive hard UV and other radiation, highly corrosive soil, dust storms far more violent than any on Earth and temperatures ranging from -130° F to 32° F (-90° C to 0° C).

Go figure!

idp
6th August, 2012 @ 04:47 am PDT

It's strange that so much money is spent looking for life on a planet that has such an uninhabitable atmosphere!!!

"it must now survive hard UV and other radiation, highly corrosive soil, dust storms far more violent than any on Earth and temperatures ranging from -130° F to 32° F (-90° C to 0° C).

Go figure!

idp
6th August, 2012 @ 04:49 am PDT

I guess the discovery of life (or its remains) would be a bonus but there is much other information to be gathered by examining the surface (and shallow mantle) of our nearest planetary neighbour.

Looking at high resolution images of Mars there seems to be fairly convincing evidence of the presence of considerable amounts of liquid water on the surface of the planet at some period. if there is no evidence of life found then the question that would spring to mind would be "Life: why here and not there?"

Oh for a Voidhawk to broaden our horizons more rapidly!

Booleanboy
6th August, 2012 @ 05:31 am PDT

Finally we're getting Street View for Google Mars.

Nrwhd
6th August, 2012 @ 07:30 am PDT

We'll be getting Street View, but the faces will be fuzzed out for privacy reasons!

fred_dot_u
6th August, 2012 @ 09:51 am PDT

"It's strange that so much money is spent looking for life on a planet that has such an uninhabitable atmosphere!!!

"it must now survive hard UV and other radiation, highly corrosive soil, dust storms far more violent than any on Earth and temperatures ranging from -130° F to 32° F (-90° C to 0° C).

Go figure!

idp - August 6, 2012 @ 04:49 am PDT"

idp, the atmosphere on Mars may have been/may be hospitable to life, but not as we know it. We evolved to exist in Earth's atmosphere - is it so hard to believe that something else may have evolved to exist in a different type of atmosphere? If the rest of the human race doubted everything and wasn't willing to "take a chance", we'd still be praying that we wouldn't fall off the edge of the world in our wooden sailing ships...

erock5000
6th August, 2012 @ 10:07 am PDT

Jumping-Up-&-Down Congratulations to the entire NASA Curiosity team for pulling off one of the boldest, gutsiest landings ever! And without benefits of any actual on-Earth testing of the entire integrated concept (had to be done on Mars itself)! Now, on to a long and productive mission! Bravo!

Lorin Ricker
6th August, 2012 @ 10:53 am PDT

I am super excited about this! And congrats to the engineers--quite an achievement!

Arf
6th August, 2012 @ 11:52 am PDT

To expand on erock5000's comment. Search Google for extremophiles. There is life here on earth that exists in even more bizzare environments like deep sea volcano vents where the heat is so high it melts the thermocouples used to measure temperature on the subs exploring them. If life can evolve to survive in a superheated lightless world like that why could it not adapt to the comperably mild conditions on Mars?

Here is a link to one article about the vents:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/dec/28/exotic-creatures-deep-sea-vent

Joel Joines
6th August, 2012 @ 12:25 pm PDT

It's strange that Curiosity can only take ground samples, but they missed this opportunity to plant a few trees, to start terraforming for future colonization of Mars.

jochair
6th August, 2012 @ 12:48 pm PDT

People should be applauding this effort! Finding life on another planet would answer one of the most important questions in history. If we're not the only life in the Universe we want to know. That would mean there's life all over the place! My congratulations go out to the guys and gals at NASA... great effort!!!

warren52nz
6th August, 2012 @ 04:07 pm PDT

re; jochair

The first step in terraforming Mars is bombarding it with comets.

Slowburn
6th August, 2012 @ 06:21 pm PDT

Congratulations NASA - your innovative work continues to inspire millions of kids to study science and engineering while expanding the horizons for all of us.

For those naysayers, please consider that seventy plus years of investment in space technology has been key ideas and technology enablers for fantastic innovations such as Alex Cabunoc and Ji A You's GiraDora Pedal-powered washing machine.

GiraDora will help women in the developing world to become more productive by freeing up their time to pursue things other than their daily chores - see: http://www.gizmag.com/giradora-pedail-power-washer/23548/

Mike Lovell
6th August, 2012 @ 06:48 pm PDT

Absolutely fantastic achievement. Watching it 'live' from the JPL perspective was literally breathtaking and took me back to Apollo (yes, sort of sadly I'm that old!).

One thing that struck me is that (of course) every school age child should be shown and inspired by what outstanding science and engineering can achieve(as we were in the 60s) and while the NASA/JPL team absolutely deserve their time in the spotlight, what is desperately needed is a popularist science educator/promoter a la Carl Sagan. The NASA team and science generally needs someone to lead and to fight the spreading influence of anti intellectual, superstition based ignorance.

Reason
6th August, 2012 @ 07:08 pm PDT

Curiosity, your landing intact, is your first achievement, good luck on your journey.

Bill Bennett
6th August, 2012 @ 07:41 pm PDT

The technical process of this lander far exceeds any other,which is good news for the exploration and scientific discoveries awaiting the human race, however i think that hopefully, curiosity will unearth a discovery that will prove that there has always been signs of civilization on this planet, but a civilization that has been long gone.

DD
6th August, 2012 @ 07:54 pm PDT

Hooray another transmitter in space for us radio hams to monitor. If they can do this why can't they put a simple repeater on the moon?

nutcase
6th August, 2012 @ 09:23 pm PDT

So they're wasting a ridiculous amount of money just to find fosilized germs? Why not use the money to develop future essential colonisation technologies such as safe 'base islanding' nuclear reactors that can be also benefit THIS rock?

SpaceBagels
7th August, 2012 @ 03:19 am PDT

re; SpaceBagels

Safe nuclear reactor designs already exist.

All that is needed for a colony on Mars in ten years is the will and/or money.

The biggest technical hurdle is pressure suits with a life measured in years or decades.

Slowburn
7th August, 2012 @ 09:42 am PDT

i hope it finds something outstandingly amazing :)

Andrew Kubicki
7th August, 2012 @ 10:30 pm PDT

Agreed, excellent engineering achievement. Now, where can I buy a car that gets 100mpg???

Mark A
12th August, 2012 @ 08:38 pm PDT

Slowburn hit it on the head. We have safe, in fact, fail safe nuclear reactor designs in the Dr. Weinberg design used at Oak Ridge for (I think) six years. It was shut down each friday and cranked up on Monday mornings. Today we need this country to push forward with the design of the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors (LFTRs) that will give us energy independence. Not might, but will. Our system is so bureaucratically/politically stalled the Chinese will beat us to the punch if we don't step up to take the lead in LFTR technology.

By the way, can I get one of the Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators for my home!!

This is such a fabulous achievement and like Reason I too was taken back to the days of Apollo and the numerous moon landings and walkabouts. These things inspire the best in humanity and hopefully a new generation of children are inspired to consider the sciences as a career.

I have no doubt that we are not the only planet in this huge universe where life thrives. It seems unlikely, to me, that it would be just us!

Dr. Veritas
14th August, 2012 @ 06:27 am PDT
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