NASA’s $2.5-billion mission known as Curiosity successfully landed on Mars on August 6, with the final minutes of its intricate landing labelled “the seven minutes of terror” by NASA scientists.
After travelling roughly 563 million kilometers from Earth to Mars over a period of eight months, the rover officially known as the Mars Science Laboratory finally landed on Aeolis Palus in Gale Crater, roughly 2.4 kilometers away from its intended landing spot.
Curiosity’s main goal is to see if the red planet could have ever supported life. Using onboard tools, Curiosity went through the Martian surface, scanning for any evidence of organic compounds and other elements necessary for life to occur.
Curiosity was too large a rover to land like the previous Mars missions Spirit and Opportunity, which were encased in small air bags and bounced along the Martian surface until they came to a complete stop. With Curiosity weighing 899 kilograms and measuring three meters in length, NASA had to come up with an entirely new landing system.
Entering the Martian surface at 21,000 kilometers per hour, the rover started to jettison its weights, and roughly 10 kilometers from the surface it deployed its parachute. Soon after, the mission’s heat shield was discarded, and at 1.8 kilometers away from the surface, Curiosity fell out of its back shell. It then turned on its landing engine to slow it down further, and 20 metres from the ground, the rover’s sky crane lowered it onto the surface using nylon cables.
All of these intricate manoeuvres had to be done with the utmost precision, leaving NASA scientists on the edge of their seats during these final seven minutes. Due to the vast distance between the two planets, it takes 14 minutes for a signal from Curiosity to reach Earth, so it was only 14 minutes after the landing that scientists became aware of the successful landing.
Curiosity’s onboard inertial sensors have recorded data on the surface, but only one megabyte of data has been sent to Earth as of yet.
Curiosity will remain relatively stationary until September, undergoing testing by engineers to make sure that every part of the rover is running. However, this will not stop Curiosity from taking pictures of the red planet, which will help scientists test equipment and make a geological map of Mars, enabling them to guide Curiosity precisely.
Pictures sent back to Earth include a panorama image of the Martian surface, made by NASA using thumbnails sent by Curiosity. Included in the panorama is a part of Mount Sharp, a 5 km high mound in Gale Crater, which Curiosity will begin climbing in six months.
Mount Sharp appears to be made up of many different layers of sedimentary rock that were laid down during different periods of time. Scientists hope information from these layers will reveal why Mars lost its water over the years.
Curiosity will be able to zap rocks into pieces using an on-board laser, with a drill to work through sediment layers. Onboard equipment will examine the chemical compound of the pieces. Using the chemical analysis, scientists could be able to determine the geological composition of Mars.
Although the Curiosity mission is projected to last for only two years, the plutonium used to keep the rover running will last for 14 years, suggesting the project could be extended in the future.