At precisely 10:32 p.m. Pacific time (1:32 a.m. EDT/0530 GMT), today, August 6, NASA's Curiosity Rover touched down on martian soil flawlessly, finally putting an end to tight nerves and angst which enveloped the agency's staff, and space exploration enthusiasts from around the globe alike. The landing marks a new milestone for NASA and human space exploration as a whole.
The perfect landing followed what was commonly referred to as the "seven minutes of terror". Anxious moments for the whole world, time in which Curiosity plunged through Mars' pink atmosphere 13,000mph or 17 times the speed of sound, encased in a protective capsule-like shell and deployed its descent.
NASA utilized a first-of-its-kind automated flight entry system to sharply reduce its speed before landing. In the next stages, a supersonic parachute was deployed, followed by a jet-powered backpack. In the last stage, the spacecraft fired up eight retrorockets to slow its descent, before its "Sky crane", which has never before been used, gently lowered the 900kg, car-sized Curiosity rover to the ground on nylon ropes. In fact, the landing was so smooth, that the rover touched down at an impeccable 1.5mph. All these were accomplished automatically, without any control from Earth. Just 14 minutes later, the time light needs to reach Earth, the rover beamed back its first images taken on Mars, visually confirming the flawless landing.
"It's absolutely incredible. It doesn't get any better than this," Charles Bolden, the Nasa administrator, told reporters in a press conference after the safe landing was confirmed. "We were sitting there saying, we know we're on the ground, we just don't know what shape we're in. To hear everything was OK was great."
The $2.5 billion Curiosity Rover headed for Mars eight months ago when it launched, and has since traveled 352 million miles (566 million km), before reaching, today, its fabled landing site of the 3 billion year old Gale Crater. There, the rover will begin its one martian year-long mission (98 weeks) and peer through the crater’s three miles of sediment – the perfect location for an investigation looking for signs of life. Aboard the rover are 10 scientific instruments that will scour the Martian surface for rocks that formed in the presence of water, and other geological clues that the planet was once habitable. One of its most advanced instruments is a specialized laser that can zap a rock from 23 feet away to create a spark whose spectral image is analyzed for the mineral's chemical composition.
The NASA team will now take 10 Martian days (24 hours and 40 minutes) to run checks on the rover and prepare for the actual exploration.
"Tonight is just the landing. Tomorrow we are going to start exploring Mars. And next week, next month and next year we are going to bring you new discoveries. We are going to continue not only exploring Mars, but exploring the solar system and exploring the universe, because our curiosity has no limit," said Charles Elachi, director of the Nasa laboratory.
Stay tuned for more Curiosity Rover news at ZME Science.