Earlier this year we watched as the privately-owned company Space X sent a space capsule into orbit around Earth. In July of 2011, we watched as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) landed the last manned space shuttle for the last time. Early this morning, NASA enjoyed a new success as they pushed the bounds of space exploration with the landing of the robotic rover named Curiosity on planet Mars. As the world watched LIVE, Curiosity touched down on Mars some 560 million kilometers away and began transmitting images from the planet’s surface. Click below to see the first images sent back from Mars by Curiosity and get all the deets about this hugely successful space mission.
In a flawless, triumphant technological tour de force, a plutonium-powered rover the size of a small car was lowered at the end of 25-foot-long cables from a hovering rocket stage onto Mars early on Monday morning. The rover, called Curiosity, ushers in a new era of exploration that could turn up evidence that the Red Planet once had the necessary ingredients for life — or might even still harbor life today. NASA and administration officials were also quick to point to the success to counter criticism that the space agency had turned into a creaky bureaucracy incapable of matching its past glory. “If anybody has been harboring doubts about the status of U.S. leadership in space,” John P. Holdren, the president’s science adviser, said at a news conference following the landing, “well, there’s a one-ton, automobile-size piece of American ingenuity, and it’s sitting on the surface of Mars right now.” No other nation has yet to successfully land a spacecraft of any size on Mars. For NASA, it was the seventh success in eight chances. Curiosity is far larger than earlier rovers and is packed with the most sophisticated movable laboratory that has ever been sent to another planet. It is to spend at least two years examining rocks within the 96-mile crater it landed in, looking for carbon-based molecules and other evidence that early Mars had conditions friendly for life. As the spacecraft carrying the Curiosity sped toward its destination on Sunday, the pull of Mars’s gravity accelerating it to more than 13,000 miles per hour, NASA officials tried to tamp down concerns that a crash would entirely derail future plans. “A failure is a setback,” said Doug McCuistion, the Mars exploration program director. “It’s not a disaster.” The Curiosity landing seemed particularly risky. Engineers chose not to use the tried-and-true landing systems, neither the landing legs of the Viking missions in 1976 nor the cocoons of air bags that cushioned the two rovers that NASA placed on Mars in 2004. Those approaches, they said, would not work for a one-ton vehicle. Instead, for the final landing step, they came up with something novel that they called the sky crane maneuver. The rover would be gently winched to the surface from a hovering rocket stage. As the drama of the landing unfolded, each step proceeded without flaw. The capsule entered the atmosphere at the appointed time, with thrusters guiding it toward the crater. The parachute deployed. Then the rover and rocket stage dropped away from the parachute and began a powered descent toward the surface, and the sky crane maneuver worked as designed. “Touchdown confirmed,” Allen Chen, an engineer in the control room, said at 1:32 a.m. Eastern time, followed by cheers, hugs and high-fives. Two minutes later, the first image popped onto video screens — a grainy, 64-pixel-by-64-pixel black-and-white image that showed one of the rover’s wheels and the Martian horizon. A few minutes later, a clearer version appeared, and then came another image from the other side of the rover. “That’s the shadow of the Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars,” Robert Manning, the chief engineer for the project, gushed in awe.
“Curiosity’s landing site is beginning to come into focus,” said John P. Grotzinger, the project scientist, in a NASA news release. In one photograph, the rim of the crater is seen in the distance. “In the foreground, you can see a gravel field,” Dr. Grotzinger said. “The question is, where does this gravel come from? It is the first of what will be many scientific questions to come from our new home on Mars.” Over the first week, Curiosity is to deploy its main antenna, raise a mast containing cameras, a rock-vaporizing laser and other instruments, and take its first panoramic shot of its surroundings. NASA will spend the first weeks checking out Curiosity before embarking on the first drive. The rover will not scoop its first sample of Martian soil until mid-September at the earliest, and the first drilling into rock is not expected until October or November … Even at the late hour, NASA’s Web sites collapsed under the throngs of people across the Internet attempting to look at the new Mars photos. “Tomorrow we’re going to start exploring Mars,” Dr. Elachi said. “And next week and next month and next year, we’ll be bringing new discoveries every day, every week, to all of you.” Because Curiosity is powered by electricity generated from the heat of a chunk of plutonium, it could continue operating for years, perhaps decades, until it finally wears out.
Here is what President Barack Obama had to say about the successful Mars landing of Curiosity:
Tonight, on the planet Mars, the United States of America made history. / I congratulate and thank all the men and women of NASA who made this remarkable accomplishment a reality.
You may recall that I lamented the end of NASA‘s manned space missions last year but this new phase of US space exploration by way of robotic rovers is very exciting. It’s very possible one of the young kids who watched the Curiosity landing earlier today will grow up to be the first person to set foot on planet Mars. Feats like this really serve to remind us that nothing is impossible when man works together toward a common goal. I just spent the last month watching fictional stories that take place in outer space … today, we watch as ACTUAL space exploration happens right before our eyes. It’s also very enlightening to realize that we petty humans spent the bulk of last week fighting over religion on the front lines of a fast food restaurant when actual science was taking place to expand man’s knowledge of the universe. Perspective, people. This Mars landing is very exciting, mostly because we are ALL able to watch as these exciting achievements happen in real time … from a planet MILLIONS of miles away! Make sure to follow NASA on Twitter for all the latest info from Curiosity and bookmark THIS page to see new images as they come in from Mars. Today is a great day for mankind, some day folks will ask you where were YOU when Curiosity landed on Mars.