The new robotic Mars Rover, Curiosity, landed safely and without incident on Mars last night. Only minutes later, the craft sent back its first images of Mars, of the giant crater that it landed in.
This is the seventh attempt by NASA to land a rover on Mars. Several others have been made by both NASA and other nations’ space programs, but every time the landing has gone awry. 40 spacecraft have been sent since the ’60s, and only 26 have survived. Because Curiosity weighs more than a ton (it’s actually about the size of a small car), the landing on Mars was the most dangerous part of its mission. NASA’s engineers had to figure out new ways to get the rover to land safely and not break apart in the atmosphere or on touchdown. Other rovers have used air bags to control their fall, but due to Curiosity’s size it was not possible. Instead, they went for a multiple-method approach—first, it was lowered to the surface with a heat shield, then a parachute, then retro-rockets, and finally a sky crane (something that has never been attempted before). Failure meant 2.5 billion dollars down the drain and most likely the cancellation of any more Mars landing projects this decade, as NASA decides where it needs to trim their budget.
Curiosity’s mission is meant to last two years. It will drive over to a mountain near the crater that it landed in (known as Gale Crater), and collect samples from rocks and soil in order to find out if Mars ever had the capacity to support life. Gale Crater was picked as a landing spot because there is evidence that there was once water in the area. To complete its mission, Curiosity is tricked out with a robotic arm and drill, cameras, a weather station, a laser, chemistry lab, and radiation detector. It has already put the radiation detector to use on its journey to Mars, where it tracked the levels of radiation so NASA could understand the risks were they to send a manned trip in the future.
So far, Curiosity has only been able to send black and white photos back to Earth, but we can expect colour photos over the next week. Personally, I am more excited to find out what the rover will find than the landing itself (although no doubt it was a pretty great feat of engineering), and whether it will determine if there was life on Mars and give us the data to make it possible for manned missions to the red planet.
The landing also inadvertently created a new Twitter sensation and meme, as it introduced the world to Bobak Ferdowsi, the project’s Mohawked flight director. He was the first to Tweet about the successful landing; as a result, his followers skyrocketed up to 10,000 and created various Tumblr memes, largely due to his awesome hair (which he customizes for each mission) and movie-star looks.