Image sent from Mars showing a wheel of the Curiosity rover
Scottish news: NASA scientists celebrate today as the Curiosity rover lands on Mars
by Rosie Harrison
The result of $2.5bn invested and ten years of work involving five thousand people from thirty seven states hung upon a high-risk landing sequence dubbed the ‘seven minutes of terror’.
To land, the rover needed to slow from 20,000km/h to just 0.6m/sec using seventy-six pyrotechnic explosions and the largest supersonic parachute ever deployed in space. If just one of these explosions had failed to go off, as Adam Steltzner, a leader of the landing team put it, “We die”.
A signal from Mars takes thirteen minutes to arrive to Earth. Once the NASA team heard that the landing sequence was beginning, they waited the final seven minutes fully aware that Curiosity had already either crashed or landed.
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The huge tension was broken as the rover sent a signal confirming its landing, complete with a picture of one of its wheels on Mars’ surface and a joyful twitter feed declared:
"I'm safely on the surface of Mars. GALE CRATER I AM IN YOU!!!"
With huge joy and relief, today the NASA team begin a 687 day (one Martian year) mission, tracking the rover’s progress up Mt. Sharp in the Gale Crater.
Curiosity is the by far the most advanced rover out of the four already sent to Mars. Seventeen cameras allow it to identify rocks whose chemical properties can be determined via a laser. If these preliminary readings are significant, the rocks can be further investigated with a microscope or delivered into one of two hi-tech analysis laps inside the rover.
John Grotzinger from Caltech explains that the mountain will allow scientists to make inferences about the conditions on Mars in the past, going back “hundreds of millions to even billions of years”. They believe the bottom layer to be clay, indicating that there was once liquid water on Mars and by association, life.
Though Curiosity rover will be searching for other signs of life, such as carbon-carrying organic molecules, the mission is significant whether or not anything is found. The LA Times suggest that it is a precedent for things to come in deep-space science. Admitting to talk of sending astronauts in the future, it seems one way or another, NASA plans to see life on Mars.
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