Kelley Clarke, left, celebrates as the first pictures appear on screen after a successful landing inside the Spaceflight Operations Facility for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover at Jet Propulsion Laboratory on August 5, 2012 in Pasadena, California. The MSL Rover named Curiosity is equipped with a nuclear-powered lab capable of vaporizing rocks and ingesting soil, measuring habitability, and whether Mars ever had an environment able to support small life forms called microbe.
In this handout image provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech, one of the first images taken by NASA's Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars on the evening of August 5, 2012 PDT and transmitted to Spaceflight Operations Facility for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.
Shortly after 10pm PDT last night, NASA’s latest robotic Mars explorer hurtled through the Martian atmosphere and landed safely on the surface of Mars. Since leaving Earth in late November of last year, Curiosity had travelled roughly 350 million miles at an average cruising speed of nearly 8,000 miles per hour on its way to Mars. But it wasn’t easy to get from interplanetary space to Mars’ red soil.
Curiosity had to successfully complete an elaborate automated landing sequence that captured imaginations of Earthlings and gave scientists fits. As Mars’ gravity began to influence the capsule, Curiosity accelerated to the breakneck speed of 13,000 miles per hour before hitting the planet’s atmosphere and utilizing a complex choreography of heat shields, parachutes, rocket motors and a “sky crane maneuver” that gently lowered the rover to the Martian surface.
Now that the perilous trip is over the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) - Curiosity’s official name - can begin its mission. Objectives for the $2.5 billion mission include a range of experiments designed to determine if Mars could have ever supported life. The one-ton unmanned rover will also study Mars’ climate and geology to set the stage for an eventual human mission to Mars.
Is sending such an expensive and complicated piece of machinery to another planet worth the cost? How will humans reach Mars, and someday beyond?
Phil Plait, Astronomer and blogger for Discover magazine; author of “Death from the Skies!: These Are the Ways the World Will End…”
Greg Villar, systems engineer for the Mars Science Laboratory