The U.S. space agency has landed a rover on Mars, completing the most harrowing step in a mission to investigate possible life on the planet. Mission controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory erupted in cheers after confirming that the one-ton rover called Curiosity arrived on Mars after an eight-month journey.
The first pictures from the craft were received back on Earth almost immediately after confirmation of the landing Monday at about 0530 UTC. NASA scientists called it the most challenging landing they have ever attempted.
The Curiosity rover is the centerpiece of NASA’s $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory mission. Curiosity traveled nearly 570 million kilometers since it was launched in November.
NASA officials told reporters at a pre-landing news conference Sunday that the spacecraft was functioning properly as it sped toward its target.
Adam Steltzner is the lead mechanical engineer for the rover’s critical entry, descent and landing sequence. “It’s a little anxiety provoking, but I will say that I slept better last night than I have slept in a couple of years because she’s kind of on her own now. And when I look back at the hard work that we’ve done, I believe that the team has done everything that we can to deserve success tonight. Although, as we all know, we can never guarantee success,” he said.
Curiosity was traveling at about 20,000 kilometers per hour when it hit the thin Martian atmosphere. It then had only seven minutes to use a parachute, rocket thrusters and a skycrane to reduce its speed and make a safe landing.
Throughout that period, the craft functioned autonomously. NASA engineers were not be able to witness the events in real time because it takes 14 minutes for radio signals to reach Earth from Mars.
NASA’s Adam Steltzner said the scientists and engineers overseeing the project were “rationally confident, emotionally terrified” and prepared. “As far as the amount of control that the team has during entry, descent and landing, it’s identical to the control that anybody watching at home has. We’re all along for the ride,” he said.
Curiosity’s hazard-avoidance cameras began taking pictures shortly after touchdown. NASA received the first low-resolution, black-and-white images within minutes of landing.
Doug McCuistion is the Director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. He says the car-sized rover, which has 17 cameras, will soon provide color pictures. “In the days, years, weeks to come, there is going to be an enormous number of images, incredible images, color images, real color this time, too, so kind of like the human eye will see, which will be really exciting. Those will come, and there will be plenty of those,” he said.
The main goal of the mission is to see whether Mars ever had conditions that could have supported microbial life. The nuclear-powered Curiosity is outfitted with instruments to investigate Martian geology, weather and radiation levels during the next two years.
Curiosity is the seventh NASA spacecraft to land on the Red Planet.
(First image of the landing area sent by Curiosity back to Earth, on which the rover’s shadow can be seen on the surface of Mars. Photo: NASA)