It’s an achievement of terrific proportions and monumental implications, but NASA’s Curiosity Rover has successfully landed on Mars.
With this accomplishment, mankind may well be yet another step closer to unlocking the secrets of the infamous red planet, which has been the source of plenty of science fiction musings, books and movies over the past several decades.
The landing, which was billed by the space agency as being one of the most difficult feats of robotic exploration ever attempted, has been met with jubilation by NASA’s control in the jet propulsion laboratory in Pasadena, California.
The Curiosity’s triumph followed what has been described as “seven minutes of terror”, as a 13 000 mile per hour descent was only part of the complex landing process. The latter, which included the largest supersonic parachute and a sky crane to safely deliver the one ton Curiosity to Mars, was the culmination of a 567 million km journey through space, which began at the end of November 2011.
This achievement is made all the more admirable when considering that NASA has launched a incredibly heavy mobile scientific laboratory hundreds of millions of kilometres across space, while ensuring that the sophisticated electronics on board work without a hitch.
The gear onboard the rover is substantial - including seventeen cameras, tools to analyse soil and rock samples, a laser, and an environmental weather station, a chemistry station and a power drill.
Indeed, moments after landing, Curiosity sent back its first black and white photo of the surface. Moreover, the rover’s stupendous success is made all the more notable by the fact that its explorations will be remotely controlled by a driver millions of miles away, on Earth.
Curiosity phone home
While the rover is not on a mission to discover ET, its intended purpose is no less relevant, as scientists will be using the rover to analyse the red planet’s surface and discern whether Mars may have once supported life.
Additionally, data gathered by the Curiosity will hopefully explain how Mars became a dry planet and find evidence that the planet does contain the building blocks of life.
According to CNN, Curiosity's first stop will be Gale Crater, suspected to at one stage being home to a lake. This will mark the beginning of a year long journey to the centre of the crater, and an ascent up Mount Sharp. It is hoped that, upon examination, the mountain’s layers of sediment will reveal the planet’s history, much like sediment layers do on Earth.
Additionally, and a hope that should make both the sci-fi and pragmatically-inclined swoon, the mission may well be a precursor to a potential human landing in the future.
To the point
”I am so proud of the NASA team that has made tonight's challenging milestone possible. However, tomorrow we begin to plan for the next great challenge -- and start compiling incredible scientific data from Curiosity. For the past 50 years, NASA has specialised in doing the hard things. Thanks to the ingenuity of our teams across America and the world, we are poised for even greater success,” commented Charles Bolden, NASA’s administrator, at a press conference given after the landing.
On NASA’s blog, Bolden also made mention of another landmark in space exploration, achieved earlier this year.
“We also reached a critically important milestone in May when SpaceX became the first private company to send a spacecraft -- the Dragon cargo capsule -- to the International Space Station and return it with cargo intact. This successful mission ushered in a new era in spaceflight -- and signaled a new way of doing business for NASA,” he said.
In short, the success of NASA’s mission is immensely exciting, and hopefully, will revive the era of exploration enjoyed in the 1960s. For a more in-depth view of Curiosity’s seven minutes of terror, watch the video below.