Curiosity, a thousand pounds of science in a car-sized package, survived the most harrowing Mars landing yet, and sent back the newest photos from Mars at about 1:45 this morning, Monday, August 6. America launched her newest Mars Rover November 26, 2011, from Cape Canaveral, Florida. After an eight-month journey of 352 million miles (566 km), it arrived at Mars and began a landing sequence NASA dubbed "Seven Minutes of Terror."
After shedding coolant and various pieces of hardware, the landing capsule oriented itself with heat shield forward, and made first contact with Mars' thin atmosphere at 1:25 a.m. EDT, at a speed of about 13,000 miles per hourÂ—and accelerating in the grip of Mars' gravity. For the next seven minutes, everything in the most complex landing maneuver ever attempted had to go exactly right, or the $2.5 billion science project would have been lost.
The Mars Science Laboratory, as the new rover is officially known, was far too heavy to bounce around the surface on a platform of balloons. Instead, NASA used a supersonic parachute to slow the landing capsule enough to permit ejection of the heat shield which had protected the rover from ablation temperatures of as much as 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit. The landing of the rover itself was carried out by a novel device the Agency called a "Sky-crane," until now a sometimes derisive term for a wondrous imaginary device that hung in the air and lifted heavy objects.
In an almost unbelievable final landing sequence that required 79 small explosions to release exterior ballast weights, open the parachute, separate the heat shield, detach the craft's back shell, jettison the parachute and perform a few other preparatory functions. Once it completed that, the craft fired eight rockets toward the ground, halting its descent in mid-air about 40 feet above the surface, and hovered thereÂ—the Sky-crane made real. Curiosity was detached from the craft and lowered to ground on three "bridles." Once safely on the ground, the rover cut the bridles and the Sky-crane flew about a half-mile and crashed on the Martian surface.
It took fourteen minutes for signals from the relaying Odyssey Mars Orbiter to reach Earth, by which time the rover was already sending its first photos, the second of which showed a shadow of itself on the Martian surface. The NASA control center, which had erupted from calm, almost disinterested, professionalism of data monitoring and relay into a jumble of hugging, high-fiving and cheering technicians upon confirmation of landing, erupted once again as the photos came in.
Step one of NASA's commitment to put humans on Mars in the 2030s has successfully begun its two-year mission of science investigation.