|Monday, 06 August 2012 13:59|
After executing a flawless landing sequence, NASA’s new Mars rover, Curiosity, has reached the surface of its new home.
“We are wheels down on Mars,” was the official word from mission control. Engineers immediately erupted into applause, hugs, and a few tears.
Soon after the landing, the first images came from Curiosity’s cameras, showing pebbles, dust, and the shadow of the rover on the surface of Mars.
Anxiety had been running high, especially considering that most Mars missions have historically failed. But the spacecraft and complex landing sequence executed everything in perfect order.
After a few days of warm-up, the one-ton nuclear powered rover will now be able to begin its primary mission: sampling and drilling the Martian surface for signs of habitability.
This flagship mission has been in the planning for more than 14 years. Scientists learned from the previous generation of rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, that Mars has a complex past, with times when water was far more prevalent on the planet’s surface. The impetus behind Curiosity was sending a machine with all the capabilities of a state-of-the-art laboratory on Earth to investigate this history in detail.
While the rover will use its toolkit to perform important field geology on the Red Planet, its main mission will be to determine if Mars is now or could ever be a site to host life. As per NASA’s “follow the water” philosophy, this means determining if the water-rich past on Mars ever had the right chemistry and energetic input to create and sustain organisms.
Over its two-year initial mission, Curiosity will drill, sample, and laser-shoot rocks on the Martian surface to figure out what minerals and elements they contain. In particular, the probe will search for organic carbon that could indicate fossilized life forms. Even more exciting, the rover will also sniff the Martian atmosphere for gasses such as methane that could be a sign of present-day life.