The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) Mars rover, Curiosity, successfully landed on the red planet this morning.
Curiosity is the most sophisticated rover to be sent to Mars, and will now begin looking for evidence to establish if Mars was ever capable of supporting life, or if it may be capable of supporting life in the future.
Curiosity completed its 570 million kilometre journey, after more than eight months of space travel, and handled the “seven minutes of terror” without incident as it flew through Mars’ atmosphere, deployed a parachute, fired retrorockets and lowered the car-sized rover with cables to the ground.
The rover landed on flat terrain near the central mound of the Gale Crater, which according to NASA, has many rock layers – varying from canyons to channels – for Curiosity to explore.
“At Gale, Curiosity will study Martian rocks and minerals that hold clues to whether Mars ever could have supported small life forms called microbes,” says NASA. “Each rock layer reveals a different time in Mars’ history. Some have clays and sulfates, which both form in water. Beyond signs of water, the rover will look for signs of organics, the chemical building blocks of life.”
Curiosity is twice the size of previous Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity and is five times as heavy, as it is equipped with multiple tools for the study of rocks and soil. It also boasts 17 cameras, a laser to zap rocks and a drill to collect rock samples.
“The laser can vaporise a thin layer of rock and tell from the colour of the sparks what the rock is made of,” says NASA.
“Curiosity also carries two radiation detectors. On left: RAD will help scientists understand the Martian radiation environment to prepare for human exploration someday. On right: DAN will help scientists detect any water below the surface, whether in the soil or bound inside minerals.”
Curiosity will send data back to Earth via the Deep Space Network through the Mars obiters. Three centres with large communications antennas receive the signals: in California, Spain, and Australia. The mission is expected to take one Mars year, which is the equivalent of two Earth years.
Curiosity’s landing was live-tweeted and live-streamed by NASA. Minutes within landing, the first images were received from the rover, showing its wheels safely on the surface of Mars. At time of writing, the live-stream had received a total of 11.7 million views. A number of NASA’s sites also crashed this morning as people rushed to view the first images.