By Mark K. Matthews
WASHINGTON — Elated scientists, cheered by the successful landing of the most sophisticated collection of scientific instruments ever landed on the surface of Mars, got to work Monday to ready the rover named Curiosity for what they hope will be years of discovery about the origins of the Red Planet.
After 36 weeks in space — and a final “seven minutes of terror” — Curiosity was gently lowered to the Martian surface by a “sky crane” operation never before attempted by NASA. An orbiting Mars satellite sent back a picture of the rover and its hovercraft dangling from a parachute.
Within hours of its touchdown at 1:32 a.m. EDT, the one-ton rover was transmitting black-and-white images of the Martian landscape beneath an afternoon sun, the first of what scientists predict will be literally millions of bits of information, including a possible answer to the question of whether there was ever organic life on Mars.
“I can only imagine what incredible data and new understandings are going to be uncovered in the coming days, months and years because of this success,” said John Holdren, the top science adviser to the White House.
Mission control center at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., erupted into cheers, and NASA workers in light blue T-shirts hugged and high-fived one another as Curiosity confirmed its touchdown. Then they got back to work testing the rover’s systems, a process that could take several weeks before it is declared operational.
“It’s absolutely incredible. It doesn’t get any better than this,” said NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden. “It’s a huge day for the nation.”
Declared President Barack Obama, in a statement issued by the White House, “It proves that even the longest of odds are no match for our unique blend of ingenuity and determination.”
Added U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, looking ahead to a flight that won’t happen for a decade, if then: “I’m confident it will not be too long in the future before human footprints follow in the path of Curiosity.”
It was the seventh time the U.S. has landed a craft on Mars, with Curiosity is the largest and most sophisticated by far. Many other attempts — including at least one by Russia — have failed.
The success of Monday’s landing means the SUV-sized rover, which cost $2.5 billion to build and launch, soon can begin its exploration of the Red Planet, using 10 science instruments as well as a robot and even a laser to zap rocks and dirt to see what they’re made of.
Though its mission life is two years, NASA officials said that they hoped they could extend that timeframe to four or more years, not an impossible goal given the longevity of two smaller rovers that NASA landed in 2004; one of them is still working.
Curiosity’s hunting range will be a 96-mile crater near Mars’ equator, one of the lowest points on Mars. The basin, dubbed Gale Crater after an Australian astronomer, has been compared to the Grand Canyon — as both have their geological history neatly layered in the rock. It also sports 3-mile-high mountain called Mount Sharp, and scientists believe the basin may have even held water once.
In the coming weeks, the rover — powered by a plutonium battery — will grind its way around the crater at a top speed of about one-tenth a mile an hour. A seven-foot arm will grab rocks to be heated and chemically analyzed by an onboard laboratory. Other instruments will measure radiation and weather.
The rover also is equipped with a laser to zap nearby rocks so that the rover can analyze the chemical make-up of the resulting gas cloud. The hope is that Curiosity can find some evidence of carbon-based compounds, such as methane, which are critical to life.
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For the science aspect to be possible, however, NASA needed to land the rover successfully — and that meant NASA had to put it through a complicated landing sequence dubbed “seven minutes of terror.” Adding to the tension was that fewer than half of all Mars missions have succeeded.
As expected, the rover began its descent a few minutes after 1 a.m. EDT when it reached the top of the Martian atmosphere about 81 miles above the surface. At that point, the spacecraft still had momentum from its launch nearly nine months ago and was traveling at speeds near 13,200 miles per hour.
To slow down, the craft used the Martian atmosphere as a brake; the temperature of its heat shield, similar to the one of the Apollo capsules, got as high as 3,800 degrees Fahrenheit in the first four minutes of descent.
When the speed dropped to 900 mph — about seven miles above the surface — the capsule popped a supersonic parachute and ditched the heat shield so instruments on its underside could help with the landing. That slowed the craft to about 200 mph, but even that was too fast.
So with a mile left before touchdown, the capsule jettisoned the parachute and transformed into a hovercraft. Eight small “retrorockets” slowed its descent to 2 mph before the hovercraft — using nylon cords — gently lowered the rover a final 66 feet to the surface before crash-landing nearby.
“The seven minutes of terror has turned into the seven minutes of triumph,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science, in a statement. “My immense joy in the success of this mission is matched only by overwhelming pride I feel for the women and men of the mission’s team.”
It’s a success NASA hopes to repeat in the decades to come. And not just with robots. In the celebration afterward, Bolden said the rover’s safe landing ultimately could mean another giant leap forward for NASA.
“The wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze the trail for human footprints on Mars,” he said.
©2012 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)
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