Mars Curiosity Rover: Wheels Down on the Red Planet

The rover pulls off an improbable landing — and fires up its instruments for two years of research

  • Share
  • Read Later
NASA / JPL-Caltech

An image taken through the wide-angle lens on one of the rover's Hazard-Avoidance cameras shows the terrain of Mars the rover now knows as home. These engineering cameras are located at the rover's base. These early images are lower resolution; larger color images are expected soon when the rover's mast, carrying high-resolution cameras, is deployed.

Sometimes the wildest ideas work best. NASA’s latest Mars lander transformed an engineering team’s high-risk brainstorming into reality on Sunday, safely lowering the 1 ton, $2.5 billion Curiosity rover into Mars’ Gale Crater while reminding us to think twice before laughing off the quirky spaceships in old science-fiction movies.

“This rocked!” a grinning Richard Cook, the mission’s deputy project manager, told an auditorium filled with exuberant colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in La Cañada Flintridge, Calif. “Seriously, wasn’t that cool?”

It was, in fact, cool, because Curiosity — a car-size mobile laboratory that’s bigger and more advanced than any of its predecessors — finished its 104 million-mile journey with a landing as dramatic as it was improbable. The touchdown required an extraordinary sequence of events designed to slow the incoming spacecraft from a blistering 13,000 m.p.h. to 2 m.p.h. in just seven minutes. Among the new tools in play: a 51-ft.-diameter parachute with eight suspension lines — the biggest ever used in an extraterrestrial landing — and retrorockets designed to slow the craft almost to a hover. Then there was the little matter of the spacecraft’s transforming itself into a sky crane just prior to landing, using nylon cords to lower Curiosity the final 25 ft. to the ground.

(PHOTOS: An Inside Look at the Mars Curiosity Rover)

As it turned out, the much-hyped “seven minutes of terror” that began when the spacecraft entered the Martian atmosphere instead became seven minutes of breathless cheers. Scientists and engineers repeatedly erupted in applause as each dreaded obstacle — guided entry, parachute deployment, heat-shield separation — passed by uneventfully. Then came the words that seemed to make JPL’s estimated 3,000 visitors catch their breath.

“Standing by for sky crane,” announced flight-dynamics engineer Al Chen, who provided commentary from the mission control room. The awaited terror finally hit; the lab fell silent. Then, after a slight pause, Chen’s smooth voice returned. “Touchdown confirmed!” he shouted at 10:32 p.m. Pacific time.

The scientists and engineers, many of whom spent 10 years working on the mission, burst into cheers and even tears as the tense seven minutes gave way to 15 jubilant minutes.  “What a great experience,” said Cook, a veteran of all the Mars rover missions. “No matter how much planning you do, it’s a fork in the road that you can’t get past emotionally until it happens.”

With the theatrics done, Curiosity is now set to begin a 98-week mission — one Martian year — hunting for signs that Mars offers, or once offered, a home for microbial life. Engineers intentionally risked landing the rover inside a crater rather than in a safer, wide-open flood plain for good reason: a plain is, well, plain. Instead, NASA has for the first time placed a rover inside a geological treasure trove.

Gale Crater is a hole next to a mountain, and as we’ve all known since the first time we stepped into a puddle, water and water-driven sediment tend to gather in holes. There will surely be no water around today, but the chemical evidence of it — and perhaps even of the biology it may once have supported — should remain. The proximity of Mount Sharp, just 6 miles away, provides an entirely different kind of scientific target: a heap of layered sediment some two-thirds the height of Mount Everest. That could prove to be an open geological book, with millions of years’ worth of Martian strata on display. NASA plans to send the probe as far as 12 miles from the landing site, grinding up soil samples and analyzing atmospheric conditions as it makes its way up the mountain.

(MORE: NASA Rover Curiosity Lands on Mars After Plummet)

“We’re hoping to find materials that interacted with water,” says John Grotzinger, the mission’s project scientist and a geologist at the California Institute of Technology.  “Pathfinder and MER [the Mars Exploration rovers] did some soil composition, but this time we’ll find out the actual chemicals.”

Also of interest within Curiosity’s 12-mile-wide landing ellipse is a region with warmer soil temperatures that appears strikingly red in images. Different minerals retain different levels of heat, and the temperature of the soil is actually more intriguing to scientists than the color. “We don’t really know what that material is,” says Grotzinger. “It’s kind of like when you walk next to a building and notice that it stays warmer at night. The hypothesis is that water flowed through there and precipitated minerals.”

Of course, if someone dropped you onto another planet, you’d have your smart phone snapping photos the second you arrived. That’s exactly what Curiosity did, in the form of the black-and-white thumbnail images it sent to Earth just minutes after landing. But those pictures aren’t souvenirs. They’re hazcam (hazard-avoidance camera) images that scientists will study to spot any potential obstructions that could hamper movement.  “We’re going to make sure we’re firing on all cylinders before we blaze out across the plains,” says Grotzinger.

They also want to take time to ensure that no technical problems will prevent Curiosity from extending a vertical “lookout mast” that is loaded with additional cameras and will reach a height of about 7 ft. above the surface. “This first week, we’re just going to be checking out the different instruments to see whether they are operational,” says Joy Crisp, a deputy project scientist. “We’ll have the big milestones sometime after that.”

For Mars aficionados, the first of those milestones are the color pictures, which should arrive on Earth a day after landing. Shot from the rover’s Descent Imager, the photos were taken as the rover approached the surface of Gale Crater and will show the first-ever view aboard a spacecraft landing on Mars. They will also help scientists pinpoint the lander’s location.

(VIDEO: Mars Curiosity Rover: How We’ll Know It’s Safe)

Curiosity’s main eyeballs will open up once the mast is extended, which could happen as early as three days after landing. That’s when four navigation cameras (navcams) will begin taking 1-megapixel stereo pictures in a 360-degree circle around the rover. The navcams are designed to look in all directions — including up and down — and have a enough resolution to spot the equivalent of a golf ball 27 yards away. Navcam images will not only give a 3-D view but also help scientists and engineers decide where they want to drive the rover and what surface features to study.

Thankfully, Curiosity is much more than a mechanical paparazzo. The instrument suite is 10 times as massive as any previous rover’s, led by a robotic arm that is part spectrometer, part rock imager, part chemistry lab. Curiosity’s deck harbors an interplanetary CSI lab capable of separating gases or heating powdered samples to identify organic compounds. And atop the mast, in addition to the bristle of cameras, is an instrument that can fire a million-watt laser beam at rocks up to 23 ft. away, vaporizing them enough for an onboard spectrometer to analyze light from the pinhead-size sparks the rocks will give off, revealing their chemical composition. Shooting X-rays at nearby rock samples, another task on the agenda, will excite electrons into fingerprint-like signals that identify minerals. “With X-ray diffraction, we can really nail down what kind of clay mineral is there and how those rocks have formed,” says Crisp. Finally — and most tantalizingly — Curiosity will sniff the Martian sky for atmospheric methane, a telltale hint of current organic life.

Engineers say the rover should have an easier time maintaining power than its predecessors, which suffered from dust accumulating atop their solar panels. Curiosity relies on a shoebox-size nuclear generator that turns heat generated by decaying plutonium into electrical power for the onboard batteries.

For NASA, which has a history of turning to the Mars program and its captivating rovers to reinvigorate public enthusiasm, the timing of Curiosity’s successful landing couldn’t be better. Though NASA’s overall budget for the coming year is about the same as that of fiscal 2012, cost overruns on the James Webb Space Telescope prompted the Obama Administration to slash the Mars program’s funding by more than $200 million — about 40%. NASA has already withdrawn from two planned Mars sample-return missions with the European Space Agency due to budget concerns. With NASA’s manned space program transitioning to private enterprise, Curiosity is perhaps the space agency’s only compelling venture.

Whether Curiosity achieves the lengthy success of NASA’s earlier rovers or not, its unlikely landing means the rover has already scored a significant accomplishment even before its aluminum wheels roll so much as an inch across the soil. “We all feel a sense of pressure to do something profound,” says Grotzinger. “But even if we don’t find carbon  — even in the case that life was never present on Mars — it’s still an opportunity to view what might have happened in Earth’s past.” Viewing it after so sweet a landing makes it all the more enjoyable.

MORE: Neil deGrasse Tyson on the Future of U.S. Space Exploration After Curiosity

68 comments
Tomasz Pelczar
Tomasz Pelczar

The ultimate level of the modern engineering and mobile technologies, on my small opinion is possible that temporary Mars had been partially similar planet to the current and past look like of the Sahara dessert, the many physical and chemical, plus biological affections, effecting, resulting the etc had maybe made similar to the Earth nature (if looking to the similarity then the best the similar physical structures like our Moon in example not Alpha Century's billion miles from this planet), I agree to the more famous and culprit experts, but I do not decline that Mars had been able to be like Sahara in the past, animals on Antarctica are within the smallest temperatures producing in example oil to make the body warm, no life by the way as is on Earth is able to life, grow, develop and exist if the Fahrenheit or Celsius is so small, this is possible only by the artificial, genetically mutations (something like wearing special uniforms or dresses by humans in example)...

Caleb Frost
Caleb Frost

Good luck, Curiosity, hopefully you'll find something worth reporting. I'm glad NASA has been able to get this as far as they have, I can only hope their investment pays off in the end. As for all the research the rover will be doing, this has to be one of the most exciting things of our generation, and I can't wait to find out what they figure out with this rover. 

kumaran
kumaran

my buddy's mother makes $67 hourly on the laptop. She has been fired from work for eight months but last month her check was $15363 just working on the laptop for a few hours. Here's the site to read more 

http://www.lazycash49.com

Spider's Web
Spider's Web

At a time we are seeing incredible feats of human achievement at the Olympic Games, Nasa only go and do this! Something great to latch onto in the USA finally (rather than gun massacres, economic stagnation and political polarization). Bravo NASA! What will they discover?

TheLegend33
TheLegend33

One of the most inspiring events I've ever seen. As I watched online along with some 12 million others, the tenable emotion throughout JPL's lab transposed into my home and it was fantastic. The future looks bright as long politics doesn't hinder what should be mankinds' endeavor.

Jellow77
Jellow77

I remember the first pics from the first rovers in 1976.   Viking 1 amp; 2.  I enjoy all the color pics sent back by these amazing machines. I hope Curiosity discovers  something new.

Fred Zart
Fred Zart

THERE IS NO LIFE ON MARS, NO CARBON, WHAT A WASTE OF$2.5 BILLION!

vstillwell
vstillwell

You want waste, check out the U.S. embassy in Iraq. 

brooklin352
brooklin352

as Shawn

explained I didnt even know that any one able to get paid $8752 in a few

weeks on the internet. did you look at this web page http://LazyCash49.com

avik
avik

This is an engineering marvel at its best. An achievement of humanity! Anyone who can't appeciate this feat clearly fails to understand the level of engineering involved in even attempting such a thing.

Felix Liusky
Felix Liusky

Haaa you are so funny, i get your point. Yes, I believe "J. P. Mars City Group" may be open for earth home mortgages and will accept all good qualified home loan applicants denied by the banks on planet earth.

GrandpaTarkin
GrandpaTarkin

JWST should have been scrapped. It's killing numerous interesting programs and cripples NASA's budget with its endless delays and cost overruns: it was originally meant to cost $500 million and launch in 2007, it's now  budgeted at 8.7 billion and projected launch in 2018!

Just the JWST cost overrun is equal to the cost of three Mars Science Laboratory missions.

Space telescopes are good, but the JWST is a bad project.

Raimo Kangasniemi
Raimo Kangasniemi

The money spent on JWST would not be recovered. So much money has been spent that it's better to just push forth with it than start a space telescope project anew and get it through all the hurdles. In fact, based on JWST's problems, one done by NASA might not be feasible for a long time. NRC's WFIRST proposal has not been exactly welcomed with open arms and cheering.

JWST certainly was too ambitious from the beginning, they should have gone for a smaller mirror for example. The 8 meter original plan has been cut down to 6.5, but something little bigger than Herschel's 3.5 meter probably should have been the goal from the beginning, a smaller step up from Hubble. Yet it's too late to complain about it. It's either JWST or nothing now.

Felix Liusky
Felix Liusky

So so agreed...that JW Space Telescope stands for Jackco-Web Space Telescope is sooo complicated waste of money and if something goes wrong after launch it's like our Ten Billion Dollars of U.S. Treasury Bonds floating in the space and can't get it back. Since this project JWST is funded with borrow money and we don't have cash to pay for it. So forget about the "telescope..." It's just a few pictures and different shades of radio isotopes like a rainbow...so what's the big deal in that...

Ladylou007
Ladylou007

How about putting some of the billions spent on this useless project toward the drought victims in the U.S.!?  

conet
conet

1. Because it's already been spent, and

2. NASA's budget is 0.5% of the federal budget, if we need to start dipping into that before the more massive and useless programs (see: war), our problems are insurmountable.

Raimo Kangasniemi
Raimo Kangasniemi

It's far from useless. It's the most advanced and complex machine ever placed on the surface of other planet. It will revolutionize our view of the geological history of Mars.

Pentagon's 600 billion plus yearly budget, on the other hand, could be raided to help these victims of human driven global warming. ;)

ChowT
ChowT

Gopers will be angry.

timelines
timelines

Mars calling Romney...our inhabitants wont be as hostile to you up here.

Come on over; brand new slate to start with...you can even bring your Etch a Sketch

ProwdLiberal
ProwdLiberal

He will tell the martians that if they want universal healthcare for a state it is OK but if its for the whole of mars, it is socialism.

ChowT
ChowT

Read my lips, Mitt, No Taxes and no tax returns either!

ChowT
ChowT

timelines, I believe there are no taxes in Mars!.

Would be suitable for mitt Romney .

Offshore banks I dont know.

ChowT
ChowT

hahahahahahahahahahah!

timelines
timelines

Once again the US show us its superb acheivements in Space.

ekralcb
ekralcb

Congratulations to NASA and the American People for their vision, talent and ingenuity! 

 

Let’s keep doing great things!  During the press conference after the landing it was mentioned that it cost each American about $7 to fund this mission.  I for one suggest that we modestly increase NASA’s budget.

 

 This was a very nice article except that I have one technical issue.  The statement, “Curiosity relies on a shoebox-size nuclear generator that turns heat generated by decaying plutonium into electrical power for the onboard batteries.”  Is misleading.  The Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG), now that’s a mouth full, measures 25 inches in diameter by 26 inches long.  That’s some large “shoebox”.  In addition, the on-board batteries are only to meet peak demand when an experiment or other operation momentarily draws more power than the normal output of the MMRTG. http://marsprogram.jpl.nasa.go...

ChowT
ChowT

Any banks in mars?

ProwdLiberal
ProwdLiberal

What seven minutes of terror?

It was seven minutes of super success!

ProwdLiberal
ProwdLiberal

Mars is now the 51st state of US!

Sorry Canada, you have been replaced! :-)

timelines
timelines

Relieved..is the NRA up there with the Rover

ProwdLiberal
ProwdLiberal

Nope! NRA stands for Not Really American. This is an American accomplishment.

mike s.
mike s.

COOL!  don't mess with the USA!

Carol Nason
Carol Nason

I am married to a prof. photog, Bamp;W is always better in most caese than color

ProwdLiberal
ProwdLiberal

sorry, disagree. You will loose a great deal of information in Bamp;W. For instance, martian soil pictures, landscape, horizon, the c0lor of martians :-) etc

Carol Nason
Carol Nason

do we really have to run politics into this wonderful landmark? People have battled God knows what to get this program to Mars as a success. Want some red neck to rain on your parade?

God Bless AMERICA

God Bless NASA

Natalie Kusko
Natalie Kusko

... Odd that with the technology of cameras these days... They are still using black and white for this endeavor.. 

Albert Shortleg Dachshund-Dogg
Albert Shortleg Dachshund-Dogg

In a few days you are going to be looking at High Definition pictures. That camera was designed to make sure the vehicle was in its upright position, belts unbuckled, and ready for roaming  ! Woof Woof !  Fetch me a bone, I am celebrating.

ApacheO_O
ApacheO_O

 "Mars aficionados, the first of those milestones are the color pictures,

which should arrive on Earth a day after landing. Shot from the rover’s

Descent Imager, the photos were taken as the rover approached the

surface of Gale Crater and will show the first-ever view aboard a

spacecraft landing on Mars."

DC3_BB61
DC3_BB61

Black and white require less data to transmit and the contrasts allow sharper definitions.

MileHy
MileHy

 black and white take less bandwidth even if it is taken with a color camera.  Its simply a matter of getting information back quicker.

CoachPhil
CoachPhil

Yet another ... "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

Sadly, I wonder how long this 'celebration' will last in the face of the sheer volume of combativeness our culture -- and media -- now seems to admire and propagate.

timelines
timelines

One Giant Step for a place to hide Romney's Income taxes

ChowT
ChowT

hahahahahahahah, and one small step to a new offshore account. !

Scott Horowitz
Scott Horowitz

Bravo, NASA

Bravo, USA

Eva F. Stever
Eva F. Stever

Send Mitt Romney over to mars first...ChanceReach4Million.blogspot.com

Scott Horowitz
Scott Horowitz

seriously? STFU and get the politics out of this...you should be ashamed.