A U.S.-made vehicle – about the size of a car – sits in a deep canyon on the surface of Mars Monday after robotic spaceflight proved how technology and human expertise can outmaneuver likely errors that could have been fatal to the complex mission.
Known as “Curiosity,” the well-equipped portable science lab will soon travel in a search for evidence that would suggest life once existed on the planet.
For the next few weeks, however, the unmanned rover will be evaluated to ensure it escaped harm during the voyage from Earth and tricky descent. It will then sample areas in the Gale Crater before venturing – a year from now – to a nearby mountain, searching through layers of material for past evidence of water and maybe even prior life. It should stay in operation for at least two years and maybe twice that or longer, NASA said.
“Curiosity is in fantastic shape,” Adam Stelzner, a NASA lead engineer told an exuberant mission staff celebrating at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “She’s there because you guys got her there.”
What made the descent so impressive to NASA officials is the complexity of the landing. They called it the “Seven Minutes of Terror.”
The Entry Decent Landing (EDL) required the space ship to slow from 13,000 miles per hour to zero – through a computer with no help from Earth. There were six different vehicle configurations and what NASA called a “zero margin of error.” A huge parachute and rockets were employed to slow the ship.
For weeks, NASA officials kept saying it was very possible it would take a long time to get a signal from the rover after landing, and photos may be both delayed and weak. But in an impressive display, the signal came quickly and photos of the rover and planet were engaging, clear and timely.
The rover’s wheel was pictured, as was the horizon.
The information was sent back to Earth through two space vehicles in orbit over the planet. One of these was more of a back-up in case anything went wrong with communication coming from the first.
One of the innovations on this landing was how the last version of the ship had to slowly lower to the planet, let the rover land, separate the cables connecting the two, and then fly away so as not to harm the rover before getting itself to land.
For NASA, the successful landing is just a start in future scientific discovery and space travel to the planet. Officials spoke of their hope to soon land humans on Mars and maybe one day have humans living on the planet. The information found during the mission could help humans answer the age-old question: “Are we alone in the universe?” said John Grunsfeld, associate NASA administrator.
The landing officially took place at 10:32 p.m. PT Sunday (1:32 a.m. ET Monday). For several minutes, the usually serious mission staff broke into thunderous applause, loud cheers and wide smiles, hugging each other and some literally shedding tears of joy.
The mission started on Nov. 26, 2011, from Cape Canaveral, Fla., traveling over eight months to reach a spot which is 352 million miles away.
It includes products from several U.S. companies, such as Wind River's real-time operating system (RTOS) called “VxWorks,” according to RobotXworld. Another example is how ATK provided products and technical know-how used during the mission, the report added.
In a statement released on Monday, President Barack Obama called the landing, “an unprecedented feat of technology that will stand as a point of national pride far into the future."
To see NASA photos of the mission, click here.
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Edited by Braden Becker