Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Touchdown: Rover Curiosity successfully lands on Mars

In a magnificent display of good old American 'Know-How', the robotic explorer Curiosity made a gentle landing inside a giant crater to begin the most ambitious dig yet into the red planet's past.

Cheers and applause ripped through the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory after the most high-tech interplanetary rover ever built signaled it had survived a harrowing plunge through the thin Mars atmosphere. Minutes after the landing signal reached Earth, Curiosity beamed back the first black-and-white pictures from inside the crater.

"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 NASA's seventh landing on Mars but many other attempts by the U.S. and other countries to zip past, circle or set down on Mars have gone awry. This time 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.

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 post-landing press conference. He compared the team to athletic teams that participate in the Olympics. "This team came back with the gold," he said.

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. It's the latest chapter in the long-running quest to find out whether primitive life arose early in the planet's history.

The voyage to Mars took more than eight months and spanned 352 million miles. 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.

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 Mars' 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.

Hey, Mr. President, what have you got to say about "American Exceptional-ism" now? -Or maybe you'd like to issue an apology to the Martians for our intruding on their planet...

Live Long and Prosper....

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