(PASADENA, Calif.) — In a show of technological wizardry, the robotic explorer Curiosity blazed through the pink skies of Mars, steering itself to a gentle landing inside a giant crater for the most ambitious dig yet into the red planet’s past.
A chorus of cheers and applause echoed through the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Sunday night after the most high-tech interplanetary rover ever built sent a signal to Earth. It had survived a harrowing plunge through the thin Mars atmosphere.
“Touchdown confirmed,” said engineer Allen Chen. “We’re safe on Mars.”
Minutes later, Curiosity beamed back the first pictures from the surface showing its wheel and its shadow, cast by the afternoon sun — giving earthlings their first glimpse of a touchdown on another world.
It was NASA’s seventh landing on Earth’s neighbor; many other attempts by the U.S. and other countries to zip past, circle or set down on Mars have gone awry.
The arrival 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.
In a Hollywood-style finish, cables delicately lowered the rover to the ground at a snail-paced 2 mph.
The extraterrestrial feat injected a much-needed boost to NASA, which is debating whether it can afford another Mars landing this decade. At a budget-busting $2.5 billion, Curiosity is the priciest gamble yet, which scientists hope will pay off with a bonanza of discoveries.
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.
The plans for Curiosity called for a series of braking tricks, similar to those used by the space shuttle, and a supersonic parachute to slow it down. Next: Ditch the heat shield used for the fiery descent.
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.
After several weeks of health checkups, the six-wheel rover could take its first short drive and flex its robotic arm.
The landing site near Mars’ equator was picked because there are signs of past water everywhere, meeting one of the requirements for life as we know it. Inside Gale Crater is a 3-mile-high mountain, and images from space show the base appears rich in minerals that formed in the presence of water.
Previous trips to Mars have uncovered ice near the Martian north pole and evidence that water once flowed when the planet was wetter and toastier unlike today’s harsh, frigid desert environment.
Curiosity’s goal: to scour for basic ingredients essential for life including carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, sulfur and oxygen. It’s not equipped to search for living or fossil microorganisms. To get a definitive answer, a future mission needs to fly Martian rocks and soil back to Earth to be examined by powerful laboratories.
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.
PASADENA, California (Reuters) - The Mars science rover Curiosity landed on the Martian surface shortly after 10:30 p.m. Pacific time on Sunday (1:30 a.m. EDT Monday/0530 GMT) to begin a two-year mission seeking evidence the Red Planet once hosted ingredients for life, NASA said.
Mission controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles burst into applause and cheered as they received signals relayed by a Mars orbiter confirming that the rover had survived a make-or-break descent and touched down within its landing zone.
NASA described the feat as perhaps the most complex achieved in robotic spaceflight.
Moments later, Curiosity beamed back its first three images from the Martian surface, one of them showing a wheel of the vehicle.
"I can't believe this. This is unbelievable," said Allen Chen, the deputy leader of the rover's descent and landing team.
The car-sized rover apparently came to rest at its planned destination near the foot of a tall mountain rising from the floor of Gale Crater in Mars' southern hemisphere, mission controllers said.
The $2.5 billion Curiosity project, formally called the Mars Science Laboratory, is NASA's first astrobiology mission since the 1970s-era Viking probes.
The landing marks a major victory and milestone for a U.S. space agency beleaguered by budget cuts and the recent loss of its 30-year-old space shuttle program.
"It's an enormous step forward in planetary exploration. Nobody has ever done anything like this," said John Holdren, the top science advisor to President Barack Obama, who was visiting JPL for the event. "It was an incredible performance."
The exact condition of the one-ton, six-wheeled, nuclear powered vehicle upon its arrival could not be immediately ascertained.
NASA plans to put the rover and its sophisticated instruments, touted as the first full-fledged mobile science lab sent to another world, through several weeks of engineering checks before starting its two-year surface mission in earnest.
The landing capped a journey of more than eight months across more than 350 million miles (567 million km) of space since the Mars Science Lab was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
PASADENA (California), Aug 6 — The Mars science rover Curiosity landed on the Martian surface shortly after 10.30 pm Pacific time yesterday (local time 1.30 pm on Monday) to begin a two-year mission seeking evidence the Red Planet once hosted ingredients for life, NASA said.
Mission controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles said they received signals relayed by a Martian orbiter confirming that the rover had survived a make-or-break descent and landing attempt to touch down as planned inside a vast impact crater. NASA has described the feat as perhaps the most complex ever in robotic spaceflight.
The US$2.5 billion (RM7.8 billion) Curiosity project, formally called the Mars Science Laboratory, is NASA’s first astrobiology mission since the 1970s-era Viking probes. The landing, a major victory for a US space agency beleaguered by budget cuts and the recent loss of its space shuttle program, was greeted with raucous applause and tears of joy by jubilant engineers and scientists at mission control. — Reuters
In a technological tour de force, NASA's nuclear-powered Curiosity rover was lowered to the surface of Mars by a rocket-powered flying crane late Sunday to kick off a $2.5 billion mission.
PASADENA, Calif.--In an unparalleled technological triumph, a one-ton nuclear-powered rover the size of a small car was lowered to the surface of Mars on the end of a 25-foot-long bridle suspended from the belly of a rocket-powered flying crane late Sunday to kick off an ambitious $2.5 billion mission.
With flight controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory anxiously watching telemetry flowing in from Mars, 154 million miles away and 13.8 minutes after the fact, the Mars Science Laboratory rover -- Curiosity -- radioed confirmation of touchdown at 10:32 p.m. PDT (GMT-7).
"Touchdown confirmed. We're safe on Mars!" said mission control commentator Allen Chen as the flight control team erupted in cheers and applause.
"It's just absolutely incredible, it doesn't get any better than this," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "I was a basket ase in there, I was really on pins and needles.
"It's a huge day for the nation, it's a huge day for all of our partners and it's a huge day for the American people," he said. "Everybody in the morning should be sticking their chests out, saying 'that's my rover on Mars.' Because it belongs to all of us."
During the final hundred feet of entry, descent and landing, the Curiosity rover was lowered from its rocket-powered "sky crane" directly to the surface of Mars as seen in this computer animation.
(Credit: NASA graphic)
The target landing zone was Gale Crater near the base of a three-mile-high mound of layered rock that represents hundreds of thousands to tens of millions of years of martian history, a frozen record of the planet's changing environment and evolution.
While the rover's exact position was not immediately known, there were no obvious problems during the dramatic entry, descent and landing and Curiosity presumably made it down inside a predicted footprint measuring four miles wide and 12 miles long -- a pinpoint landing compared to previous missions.
The seven-minute descent to the surface provided high drama as flight controllers monitored telemetry from the spacecrat, relayed through NASA's aging Mars Odyssey spacecraft. As each major milestone ticked off, engineers clapped and cheered.
"We have acquired the ground with the radar," Chen reported. "Heat shield has separated, we have found the ground. We're standing by to prime the engines in prepartion for powered flight. Six-point-nine kilometers and descending..."
A few minutes later, the rover and its descent stage fell away from the vehicle's braking parachute and eight rocket engines ignited to stabilize the craft and slow the fall to touchdown velocity.
"We are in powered flight," Chen reported. "We're at an altitude of one kilometer and descending about 70 meters per second... 500 meters in altitude... standing by for sky crane. We found a nice flat place, we're coming in ready for sky crane. Down to 10 meters per second, 40 meters altitude."
A few moments later, just above the surface, the rocket-powered sky crane lowered Curiosity to the surface on the end of a 25-foot-long bridle, a landing technique never before attempted.
While engineers did not expect pictures right away, blurry low-resolution thumbnails from the rover's rear hazard avoidance cameras were transmitted within minutes of touchdown showing a wheel on the surface of Mars.
"Odysesey data is still strong," Chen reported. "Odyseey is nice and high in the sky. At this time we're standing by for images..."
"We've got thumbnails," someone said.
"We are wheels down on Mars!" Chen reported.
"Oh my God," someone said in the background.
Exploring the crater floor and climbing Mount Sharp over the next two years, Curiosity will look for signs of past or present habitability and search for carbon compounds, the building blocks of life as it is known on Earth.
But before the rover's geological fieldwork can begin, engineers will devote several weeks to carefully checking out Curiosity's complex systems and testing its state-of-the-art instruments and cameras.
At touchdown, cables connecting the rover to the sky crane descent stage were severed, setting the stage for initial tests and checkout.
(Credit: NASA graphic)
Curiosity's landing represented the most challenging robotic descent to the surface of another world ever attempted, a tightly choreographed sequence of autonomously executed events with little margin for error.
NASA managers went out of their way to brace reporters for the possibility of failure.
"No matter what happens, I just want the team to know I am really proud and privileged to have worked with these guys and gals," Doug McCuistion, director of Mars exploration at NASA Headquarters, said earlier Sunday. "They're amazing. They've done everything humanly possible to make this happen."
Adam Steltzner, the leader of the EDL team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said earlier Sunday he was "rationally confident, emotionally terrified."
"This team ... has worked really hard for the better part of a decade, and the fruits of that labor get put to the test tonight," he said. "It's a little anxiety provoking. But I will say I slept better last night than I have slept in a couple of years, because she's kind of on her own now. When I look back on the hard work that we've done, I believe the team has done everything that we can to deserve success tonight."
And that's exactly what they got.
The Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft consisted of an interplanetary cruise stage, providing power and communications during the long-flight out from Earth, and the Curiosity rover, cocooned inside a heat shield and aeroshell to protect it from the extreme temperatures of atmospheric entry.
After covering 352 million miles since launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla., last November, the cruise stage separated from the lander around 10 p.m. But because of the distance between Earth and Mars -- 154 million miles -- it took radio signals confirming critical events 13.8 minutes to reach the flight control team at JPL. That translated into 10:14 p.m. "Earth-received time."
One minute later, thrusters fired to stop the entry vehicle's 2-rpm rotation and the spacecraft re-oriented itself heat shield forward and slammed into the discernible atmosphere at 10:24 p.m. at an altitude of about 78 miles and a velocity of 13,200 mph. At that point, it was about 390 miles -- seven minutes -- from touchdown in Gale Crater.
The Mars Science Laboratory was the first spacecraft to attempt a so-called guided entry on another planet.
To control its lift, which allowed Curiosity's flight computer to make a pinpoint landing, two 165-pound tungsten weights were ejected just before entry to change the spacecraft's center of mass. During hypersonic flight, thruster firings controlled the orientation of the vehicle's "lift vector" to compensate for actual atmospheric conditions as it precisely controlled its path toward Gale Crater.
About one minute and 15 seconds after entry, the spacecraft's heat shield was expected to experience peak temperatures of up to 3,800 degrees Fahrenheit as atmospheric friction provided 90 percent of the spacecraft's deceleration. Ten seconds after peak heating, that deceleration was expected to peak at 10 to 15 times the force of Earth's gravity at sea level.
Plummeting toward Mars, the rover's flight computer continued steering the spacecraft, firing thrusters to make subtle changes in the flight path as required by atmospheric density and other variables.
The guided entry phase of flight was programmed to an end about four minutes after entry began. Six 55-pound weights then had to be ejected to move the center of mass back to the central axis of the spacecraft to help ensure stability when its braking parachute deployed.
Seconds later, at an altitude of about seven miles and a velocity of some 900 miles per hour, the huge chute unfurled and inflated to a diameter of 70 feet, delivering a 65,000-pound jolt to the still-supersonic spacecraft.
The heat shield was expected to be jettisoned about 24 seconds later, at an altitude of about five miles and a descent rate of 280 mph, exposing the rover's undercarriage to view.
A sophisticated radar altimeter then began measuring altitude and velocity, feeding those data to the rover's flight computer while a high-definition camera began recording video of the remaining few minutes of the descent.
Six minutes after entry, now one mile up and falling toward the surface at roughly 180 mph, the rover and its rocket pack were cut away from the parachute and backshell, falling like a rock through the thin martian atmosphere.
An instant later, eight hydrazine-burning rocket engines, two at each corner of the descent stage, ignited to stabilize and quickly slow the craft's vertical velocity to less than 2 mph.
About 16 seconds before touchdown, at an altitude of just under 70 feet, Curiosity was lowered on the end of a 25-foot-long bridle made up of three cables. As the support and data cables unreeled, the rover's six motorized wheels presumably snapped into position for touchdown.
Finally, seven minutes after the entry began and descending at a gentle 1.7 mph, Curiosity's wheels touched the surface of Mars. Radio confirmation of landing came in at 10:32 p.m., about 3 p.m. local time on Mars.
Curiosity's flight computer, sensing "weight on wheels," then sent commands to fire small explosive devices that severed the cables connecting the rover to the still-firing propulsion system. Its work complete, the descent stage flew away to a crash landing a safe distance away.
"We have three different signals we would use to confirm touchdown and we need all three of those things to look right before we say so," Steltzner said earlier Sunday. "One of those is a message from the spacecraft that says 'I touched down, and this is the velocity I touched down at and where I think I am.'
"The rover has an inertial measurement unit, a gyro and an accelerometer set, and we look at that stream to say the rover's not moving at all, that signal says 'I think I'm on the ground and I'm not moving.' And the third is, we wait a safe period of time and confirm we're getting continuous UHF (radio) transmission. And frankly, that's there to make sure the descent stage hasn't fallen back down on top of the rover. When all three of those signals are positive, we declare touchdown confirmation."
And that's exactly what Chen reported at 10:32 p.m.