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Entries in Mars Science Laboratory (2)

Monday
Aug062012

NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover Lands Successfully on Planet

NASA/JPL-Caltech(PASADENA, Calif.) -- NASA's $2.5 billion Mars Curiosity Rover has landed on the surface of the red planet following an eight-month, 352-million-mile journey.  NASA says it received a signal from the rover after a plunge through the Martian atmosphere described as "seven minutes of terror."

A chorus of cheers and applause echoed through the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory just after 1:30 a.m. EDT Monday when it was confirmed the rover had landed successfully.

"Touchdown confirmed," said engineer Allen Chen.  "We're safe on Mars."

Minutes later, Curiosity beamed back the first pictures from the surface showing its wheel and its shadow -- cast by the afternoon sun -- giving earthlings their first glimpse of a touchdown on another world.

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Mars Curiosity is NASA's latest and boldest attempt yet to go where robots -- but no man -- have gone before.  Before this mission -- formally known as the Mars Science Laboratory -- the U.S., Russia, Japan and Europe had sent 40 spacecraft to explore the fourth planet from the sun since the space age began.  Twenty-six had failed.

Curiosity, an intrepid chemistry set on wheels, packed with cameras and gadgets galore, was designed to look for signs that life once existed on Mars -- signs that Mars could once have had the chemical resources needed to support microbial life.  This could mean potential sources of water, food and energy that could someday support visiting humans from Earth.

The landing had been dubbed "Seven Minutes of Terror" by the engineers who figured out the best way to land.  Adam Steltzner, team leader for the entry, descent and landing of Curiosity, said that as the ship was in the planning stages and then heading to Mars, he found himself waking up in the middle of the night, thinking about the sequence of events that would have to go perfectly.

"The big trick is you are going 13,000 miles an hour," he said.  "You slam into the Martian atmosphere and you want to gracefully get the spacecraft down sitting quietly on the surface on her wheels, and all of that takes different changes in the configuration of the vehicle, 79 events that must occur."

Curiosity was set to land when Mars was 154 million miles from Earth.  It weighed 5,293 pounds on Earth -- the size of a small car and much bigger than the rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which were cushioned by airbags when they landed in 2004.  

Engineers quickly figured out that airbags would burst if they were tried on Curiosity.  So they designed it to be lowered to the Martian surface by a heat shield, then a parachute, then retro-rockets, and finally a sky crane -- something that had never tried before -- and that's what made this so scary for them.  Just one slip would mean $2.5 billion down the drain.

Now that the rover is safely on Mars, NASA hopes it will explore the planet for one Martian year, which is about 22 months on Earth.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

Sunday
Aug052012

Mars Rover On Final Approach for Landing Sunday Night

iStockphoto/Thinkstock (NEW YORK) -- NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover closed in on its target Sunday, all systems go for a landing on Mars late Sunday night (Monday morning at 1:31 a.m. EDT). If there's anxiety at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., which controls the mission, one can understand.

Curiosity (the mission's formal name is Mars Science Laboratory) is the largest, most expensive and most ambitious Mars probe sent by the United States in a generation. It's been a decade in the making and ran up bills of $2.5 billion.

NASA is playing down expectations, but if the building blocks of life are buried in the Martian soil, Curiosity's miniature onboard chemistry laboratory is designed to pick them out.

"Can we do this? Yeah, I think we can do this. I'm confident," Doug McCuistion, head of the Mars exploration program at NASA headquarters, said Saturday. "We have the A-plus team on this. They've done everything possible to ensure success, but that risk still exists."

"We have to keep looking," said Andrew Kessler, a writer who spent three months covering the team that made the last successful landing, in 2008. "Every question leads to more understanding," said Kessler, the author of a book called "Martian Summer."

Curiosity weighed 5,293 pounds on Earth. It's the size of a small car and much, much bigger than the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which landed on Mars in 2004, cradled in airbags. Curiosity is simply too big for that, so it will be lowered to the surface by a heat shield, then a parachute, then retro-rockets, and finally a rocket-powered sky crane. That's something engineers have never tried before -- and that's what makes this so scary for them.

"When people look at it, it looks crazy," says Adam Stelzner, an engineer who laid out the landing plans, in a video NASA produced about the landing. "Sometimes when we look at it, it looks crazy. It is the result of reasoned engineering thought. But it still looks crazy."

NASA says it thinks there's a 90 percent chance of a safe landing. If they're right, they say they hope Curiosity will explore for one Martian year -- about 22 months on Earth.

If Curiosity doesn't find evidence of life, scientists say it will mean very little. The half-dozen probes to land on Mars since 1976 have only explored a few square miles of the planet.

But what if it hits pay dirt? What if it really does find something? The results would probably not be conclusive, but they would be incentive for further exploration -- a tender subject at NASA because, hampered by budget cuts, it currently has no future Mars missions approved.

"If we don't ponder these things, then we're not asking ourselves the right questions," said Kessler, "and we're not looking to build bigger and better futures for ourselves."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio







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