NASA’s latest rover — Curiosity — is thrilling scientists, transmitting the first close-up images from inside a crater on the surface of Mars.
The Mars Science Laboratory Atlas spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., on Nov. 26, 2011. At 1:31 a.m. EDT on Aug. 6, the rover landed on Mars at the foot of a layered mountain inside Gale Crater. Its mission: To investigate whether conditions have been favorable for microbial life and for preserving clues in the rocks about possible past life. It will also study Mars’ habitability.
The $2.5 billion mission set down a large, mobile laboratory using precision landing technology that makes many of Mars’ most scientifically intriguing regions viable destinations for the first time, according to NASA.
Entry, descent and landing included a combination of technologies inherited from past NASA Mars missions, as well as new technologies. The spacecraft was controlled by small rockets and a large parachute during descent through the Martian atmosphere, toward a 4-mile landing zone until the rover separated from its final delivery system, the sky crane. Like a large crane on Earth, the sky crane system lowered the rover to a “soft landing” — wheels down — on Mars’ surface.
For 23 months after landing, Curiosity will analyze dozens of samples drilled from rocks or scooped from the ground as it explores with greater range than any previous Mars rover.
Curiosity is 9 feet, 10 inches long (not counting its robotic arm) 9 feet, 1 inch wide and 7 feet tall at the height at top of mast. Its arm is 7 feet long and its wheels have a 20-inch diameter.
Gale Crater formed when a meteor hit Mars in its early history, 3.5-3.8 billion years ago, according to NASA. The meteor impact punched a hole in the terrain. The explosion ejected rocks and soil that landed around the crater. Scientists chose Gale Crater as the landing site for Curiosity because it has many signs that water was present over its history. Water is a key ingredient of life as we know it.
Inside the 96-mile diameter crater is a mountain that rises higher from the crater floor than Mount Rainier rises above Seattle, according to NASA. The crater is about the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.
Expected near-surface atmospheric temperatures at the Gale Crater landing site during Curiosity’s primary mission (1 Martian year or 687 Earth days) are from -130 degrees to 32 degrees.
Curiosity’s onboard lab will study rocks, soils and the local geologic setting in order to detect chemical building blocks of life — forms of carbon — on Mars and will assess what the Martian environment was like in the past, according to NASA. Just as is the case on Earth, the record of Mars’ climate and geology is essentially “written in the rocks and soil” in their formation, structure and chemical composition.
The rover will use radio relays via Mars orbiters to communicate with Earth’s Deep Space Network. The shortest distance between Earth and Mars is 33.8 million miles, the longest 249.3 million miles. It takes about 13 minutes for a signal to reach Earth.
Advancing the technologies for precision landing of a heavy payload will yield research benefits beyond the returns from Mars Science Laboratory itself. Those same capabilities would be important for later missions both to pick up rocks on Mars and bring them back to Earth, and conduct extensive surface exploration for Martian life.
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