Curiosity Rover Successfully Lands on Mars

In the late hours of Sunday evening (Earth time in the Pcific Time Zone), a drama was playing out. Nervous scientists in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory waited to hear if their billion-dollar wheeled rover, a car-sized robot, named Curiosity had successfully managed one of the most unlikely landings in the history of space exploration.

Problem Solving

To successfully land the Curiosity rover on Mars involved overcoming a scary variety of problems, including:

  • How to slow the descent vehicle from supersonic speeds when Mars’ atmosphere is too thin.
  • How to get the robotic vehicle on the surface without damaging its complicated, expensive equipment.

The last time NASA sent a rover to the surface of Mars in 1996–1997, during the Mars Pathfinder mission, the vehicle descended through the thin atmosphere surrounded by inflated bags similar to automobile airbags. The bags allowed the vehicle to bounce and roll along the surface until it came to a stop, then the bags deflated and the rover emerged and rolled off of its landing platform. But that rover was much smaller and less packed with delicate equipment.  The Curiosity rover would never survive such a jarring landing. So, the NASA team devised a multi-step descent plan that sounds like something out of  a science fiction movie.

(To learn more about the landing sequence, click on this link to see the NASA video, Seven Minutes of Terror)

As far-fetched as this landing might seem, the scientists and engineers could do nothing more than wait and hope that everything would improbably work as they had planned it. And when the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California began receiving signals from Curiosity, the control room erupted with cheers of relief. Not only had the rover survived the landing sequence, its communications and video equipment were functioning and one of the first photos from the landing sight showed a wheel of the rover safely upright on the Martian soil in the targeted landing area of Gale Crater.

The scientists and engineers at the Jet Propulsion Lab's Mission Control react in excitement to the Curiosity rover's first transmission.

What’s Next for Curiosity?

The Curiosity rover is packed full of the most numerous and sophisticated exploratory equipment in the history of NASA robotic exploration. It will use 10 different instruments during its 98-week primary mission to learn more about the geology of the Martian landscape where it landed. The rover will collect soil and rock samples with its robotic arms and scoops. With its built-in laboratories, Curiosity will use lasers to analyze the samples, looking for evidence of organic materials from the past and traces of water. Curiosity’s cameras and videos will also give scientists here on Earth the clearest images of Mars we’ve ever had.

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What Do You Think?

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