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artist rendering of nasa's curiosity mars rover This artist's concept depicts the rover Curiosity, of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, as it uses its Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument to investigate the composition of a rock surface. (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Curiosity Has Landed!

NASA's largest Mars rover begins exploring the red planet

By Miranda Rector | August 6 , 2012

PASADENA, California — The next era of Mars exploration began this morning when NASA's Curiosity Mars rover landed on the red planet.

Officially called the NASA Mars Science Laboratory, the Curiosity rover is the biggest and most sophisticated man-made craft ever sent to Mars. It's as big as a small car and has the most cutting-edge scientific equipment to study the planet.

Curiosity's mission is to spend at least two years studying Mars' Gale Crater. One of its most important tasks will be searching for evidence that life existed — or currently exists — on Mars. It will also extensively investigate the Martian atmosphere and on the surface and do more research on Mars than any rover before it.

"This is the most complex mission we've ever done," Robert Manning, Flight System Chief Engineer, said.

Seven Minutes of Terror

Because the rover is so large, NASA scientists and engineers had to come up with a new way of getting Curiosity safely to the Martian surface.

In past missions, they used airbags to cushion the impact of falling from space. With Curiosity, NASA devised a new system — called the skycrane maneuver — that lowered the rover from a spacecraft hovering above the planet's surface.

The landing begins with the capsule carrying the rover hitting the Martian atmosphere at about 13,000 miles per hour (m.p.h.). To slow it down, small rockets fire and the craft's speed decreases to 1,000 m.p.h. A parachute is then deployed to slow the craft down even more, to about 200 m.p.h.

Next, the heat shields surrounding the capsule fall away and the craft carrying Curiosity is dropped towards the surface of Mars. To make sure it doesn't crash, the craft fires its own rockets to move away from the capsule. As it approaches the landing site, the skycrane maneuver begins and Curiosity is lowered to the surface using a 21-foot-long tether. With Curiosity now on Mars, the tether is cut and the craft that lowered the rover down is flown away from it.

first images from nasa's curiosity rover
Two of the first images taken by NASA's Curiosity rover. The top image is Curiosity's shadow. The bottom image is of one of its wheels, with the Martian landscape in the background. (Photos: ASA/JPL-Caltech)
The landing process takes seven minutes and is done by computers, with no help from mission control. Scientists and engineers call it "Seven Minutes of Terror." It takes 14 minutes for a signal from the rover to travel from Mars to Earth. So Curiosity could have been alive or dead on the surface for seven minutes before mission control knew it had hit the atmosphere.

Success!

In the minutes before the landing, the control room at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) was tense. Every small success was applauded, then the control room continued to stare intently at the screens in front of them and bite their nails.

Then, at 1:32 a.m. Eastern time, engineer Allen Chen made the announcement everyone had been waiting for: "Touchdown confirmed."

Everyone in mission control erupted in cheers and clapping. Scientists and engineers hugged and high-fived each other. Many cried and smiled at the same time.

"This felt like a movie, and I had to keep telling myself it's real," Charles Elachi, the Director of JPL, said. "What an inspiration to young people."

An hour after the landing, team leaders gathered in front of media from around the world. Just as the news conference was about to start, dozens of Jet Propulsion Lab team member ran in, one of them waving a little American flag, shouting "USA" and "JPL." Each member high-fived the team leaders up on stage. The energy in the room was high.

Only 40 percent of Mars landings ever attempted have been successful. The conditions of Mars make landing on it extremely difficult. There was a lot of pride in accomplishing a successful landing and raising the bar even higher.

"This feat is something only the United States could do," John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administrator, said.

John P. Holdren, President Barack Obama's science adviser, went further.

"If anybody has been harboring doubts about the status of U.S. leadership in space, well, there's a one-ton, automobile-size piece of American ingenuity, and it's sitting on the surface of Mars right now," Holdren said.

To learn more about what it took to land Curiosity on Mars, check out the video Curiosity: Seven Minutes of Terror!

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