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Curiosity’s (also known as the Mars Science Laboratory, MSL) journey to Mars spanned eight months and 352 million miles (566 million kilometers). It was launched in November 2011. The rover gently touched down 5.08.2012 night after executing an elaborate and untested landing routine. The size of a compact car, it was too heavy to land using air bags. Instead, it relied on a heat shield, parachute, rockets and cables to lower it to the ground.
During its seven-minute plunge through the atmosphere, Curiosity shed the spacecraft parts. The complicated touchdown NASA designed for the Curiosity rover is so risky that it’s been described as “seven minutes of terror” — the time it takes to go from 20,920 kmph to a complete stop. The eagle-eyed Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter had circled over the landing site and spotted Curiosity and the scattered parts.
The parachute appeared to be inflated, and the rocket stage that unspooled the cables crashed 2,100 feet (640 meters) from the landing site.
In the first week of August 2012, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter caught Curiosity sailing through the Martian skies under a parachute. It was only the second time a spacecraft has been photographed on a parachute; the first was Phoenix during its descent to the surface.
The nuclear-powered, six-wheel Curiosity will spend the next two years chiselling into rocks and scooping up soil at Gale Crater to determine whether the environment ever had the right conditions for microbes to thrive. It will spend a chunk of its time driving to Mount Sharp where images from space reveal signs of past water on the lower flanks.
It’ll be several weeks before it takes its first drive and flexes its robotic arm. Since landing, engineers have been busy performing health checkups on its systems and instruments. Over the next several days, it was poised to send back crisper pictures of its surroundings including a panorama.
With a length of 10 feet and weight of 899 kg, the rover is the largest vehicle humans have sent to other planets. The rover also will be the first to use nuclear power thanks to a radioisotope thermoelectric generator that will utilize the heat of plutonium-238’s radioactive decay. The long-lived power supply will enable Curiosity to operate for at least a full Mars year (687 Earth days, or 1.9 Earth years).
NASA twice tried to record a Mars landing. In 1999, the Mars Polar Lander carried similar gear, but it slammed into the south pole after prematurely shutting off its engines. Another effort was aborted in 2008 during the Phoenix lander’s mission to the northern plains when mission managers decided not to turn it on for fear it would interfere with the landing.
The Curiosity program has cost a total of 2.5 billion dollars, including 1.8 billion dollars for spacecraft development and science investigations.
“Curiosity, the most sophisticated rover ever built, is now on the surface of the Red Planet, where it will seek to answer age-old questions about whether life ever existed on Mars- or if the planet can sustain life in the future,” said an ecstatic NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.
An Indian scientist who was a part of the NASA team which had identified the landing site of the ‘Curiosity’ rover on the red planet, today described the spot as “very exciting” and holding “great promise”.
The scientist Amitabh Ghosh, chair of the science operations working group at NASA Mars Exploration Rover Mission, was a member of the team that zeroed in on the Gale crater location where the car-sized rover successfully landed on August 6, 2012 GMT (11:00 IST).
Gale crater location, 24,78,38,976 kilometres from home was chosen after observations from orbit identified clay and sulfate minerals in the lower layers, indicating a wet history.
“Clay minerals occur in water related environment, and also we see layering in this crater. On earth, sedimentary rocks show layering and that is again an evidence of water rich environment,” he said.
“And the other thing is you have a central uplift in the crater, which is like a mountain, again you see layering on top of that. So scientifically it is very interesting once you have something like layering, each layer can potentially be a window into the martial environment at a specific point of time and that is what we want,” Ghosh added.
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