Nasa's Curiosity rover successfully lands on Mars

 

The reaction from the Nasa control room as the rover landed

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The US space agency has just landed a huge new robot rover on Mars.

The one-tonne vehicle, known as Curiosity, was reported to have landed in a deep crater near the planet's equator at 06:32 BST (05:32 GMT).

It will now embark on a mission of at least two years to look for evidence that Mars may once have supported life.

A signal confirming the rover was on the ground safely was relayed to Earth via Nasa's Odyssey satellite, which is in orbit around the Red Planet.

The success was greeted with a roar of approval here at mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

Picture from Curiosity rover The first pictures from Mars began to be fed back immediately; high-resolution images will come later

Within minutes, the robot was returning its first low-resolution images - showing us its wheels and views to the horizon. A first colour image of Curiosity's surroundings should be returned in the next couple of days.

Engineers and scientists who have worked on this project for the best part of 10 years punched the air and hugged each other.

The rover's Twitter feed announced: "I'm safely on the surface of Mars. GALE CRATER I AM IN YOU!!!"

The descent through the atmosphere after a 570-million-km journey from Earth had been billed as the "seven minutes of terror" - the time it would take to complete a series of high-risk, automated manoeuvres that would slow the rover from an entry speed of 20,000km/h to allow its wheels to set down softly.

The day I watched Curiosity being built in a clean room at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena last year, the rover's six wheels were lying on one work bench while the chassis stood on another and it was hard to believe the white-suited engineers could make sense of the maze of tubes and cabling.

But what they've created now stands on the red soil of Mars - and it's in one piece. In the hallway of a JPL building we were shown a full-size replica. Walking around it made me realise something difficult to grasp from the pictures and video: this is a beast of a machine, a kind of cosmic Humvee with instruments instead of weapons.

Sometimes Nasa public relations can appear bragging. Today it feels justified. Curiosity is all set to discover something remarkable about our strangest neighbour.

The Curiosity team had to wait 13 tense minutes for the signals from Odyssey and the lander to make their way back to Earth.

Data suggested the vehicle had hit the surface of Mars at a gentle 0.6m/s.

"It looked at least with my eyeball that we landed in a nice flat spot. Beautiful," said Adam Steltzner, who led the descent operation.

The JPL director, Charles Elachi, added: "Tonight was a great drama that was played. I felt like I was in an adventure movie but I kept telling myself this is real; and what a fantastic demonstration of what our nation and our agency can do."

That sense of national pride was picked up by US President Barack Obama's chief science adviser, John Holdren.

"Landing the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity on the Red Planet was by any measure the most challenging mission ever attempted in the history of planetary exploration," he said.

"And if anyone has been harbouring doubts about the status of US leadership in space, well there's a one tonne automobile-sized piece of American ingenuity sitting on the surface of the Red Planet right now."

Curiosity - Mars Science Laboratory

Rover (Nasa)
  • Mission goal is to determine whether Mars has ever had the conditions to support life
  • Project costed at $2.5bn; will see initial surface operations lasting two Earth years
  • Onboard plutonium generators will deliver heat and electricity for at least 14 years
  • 75kg science payload more than 10 times as massive as those of earlier US Mars rovers
  • Equipped with tools to brush and drill into rocks, to scoop up, sort and sieve samples
  • Variety of analytical techniques to discern chemistry in rocks, soil and atmosphere
  • Will try to make first definitive identification of organic (carbon rich) compounds
  • Even carries a laser to zap rocks; beam will identify atomic elements in rocks

This is the fourth rover Nasa has put on Mars, but its scale and sophistication dwarf all previous projects.

Its biggest instrument alone is nearly four times the mass of the very first robot rover deployed on the planet back in 1997.

Curiosity has been sent to investigate the central mountain inside Gale Crater that is more than 5km high.

It will climb the rise, and, as it does so, study rocks that were laid down billions of years ago in the presence of liquid water.

The vehicle will be scouring Mount Sharp in the crater's centre looking for evidence that past environments could have favoured microbial life.

It is a region that Curiosity project scientist John Grotzinger told the BBC's Horizon programme reads like a "book about the early environmental history of Mars".

Scientists warn, however, that this will be a slow mission - Curiosity is in no hurry.

For one thing, the rover has a plutonium battery that should give it far greater longevity than the solar-panelled power systems fitted to previous vehicles.

"People have got to realise this mission will be different," commented Steve Squyres, the lead scientist of the Opportunity and Spirit rovers put on the surface in 2004.

"When we landed we only thought we'd get 30 sols (Martian days) on the surface, so we had to hit the ground running. Curiosity has plenty of time," he told the BBC.

Initially, the rover is funded for two Earth years of operations. But many expect this mission to roll and roll for perhaps a decade or more.

Join Jonathan Amos for a special Discovery programme on Curiosity from JPL on the BBC World Service at 19:30 BST, Monday. The programme will be available for download after broadcast.

Mars maps
Mars rover (Nasa)
  • (A) Curiosity will trundle around its landing site looking for interesting rock features to study. Its top speed is about 4cm/s
  • (B) This mission has 17 cameras. They will identify particular targets, and a laser will zap those rocks to probe their chemistry
  • (C) If the signal is significant, Curiosity will swing over instruments on its arm for close-up investigation. These include a microscope
  • (D) Samples drilled from rock, or scooped from the soil, can be delivered to two hi-tech analysis labs inside the rover body
  • (E) The results are sent to Earth through antennas on the rover deck. Return commands tell the rover where it should drive next

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter

 

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  • rate this
    +14

    Comment number 59.

    I don't believe a word of it was all obviously staged in studio in Hollywood.
    No I am only joking this is an incredible achievement and they managed to get past the giant spaceship eating monster of Mars.
    I am really looking forward to some incredible insights on our nearest planet neighbour.

  • rate this
    +11

    Comment number 58.

    A truely fantastic achievement. Well done to all involved.
    The cost is insignificant in comparison with potential benefits including the trialling of new technologies in harsh environments that potentially benefit us on our home planet, including the starving millions.
    Just goes to show what can be achieved.

  • rate this
    +26

    Comment number 57.

    With so much of the landing automated because of the delay between us and Mars, the tension in the room must have been eye-watering - all those technicians hoping that the work they did months and years ago actually works in these few minutes.

    Congratulations - Unmanned missions are going to be the real future of Solar System exploration, and therefore this project is vital.

  • rate this
    -4

    Comment number 56.

    Is Mr. "F.U.K. U" who makes his appearance at 31seconds a real person?

    But seriously, incredible achievement!

  • rate this
    -324

    Comment number 55.

    I dont get this at all, why go to another planet when this planet needs help the most, we have people dying of cancer ect ect, people are starving world wide not to mention diplomatic problems the world over and yet they spend billions on this project to do what to find out if water or life was on another planet millions of miles away from here who comes first humans or space

  • rate this
    +9

    Comment number 54.

    Wonderfully inspirational stuff and considerably better value for money than the confounded Olympics.

  • rate this
    +8

    Comment number 53.

    This event and the personal achievements at the Olympics show the positive side of the human race. It's a pity that the negative always seems to outweigh the good in the world.

  • rate this
    +34

    Comment number 52.

    At last a very worthwhile investment in a project that is bound to provide valuable information. I'd much rather money was spent this way rather than proping up corrupt regimes in the third world.

  • rate this
    +11

    Comment number 51.

    Can you imagine the number of poor people that could have been put on the moon for this money?!? ;-)

    Joking aside, what an absolutely amazing achievement. I would guess the person who came up with the idea of using a sky-crane probably wasn't taken seriously at first - crazy and brilliant at the same time.

  • rate this
    +59

    Comment number 50.

    @32 Aikiguy and anyone saying this is a waste of money.

    Look at what the space program has brought us. Lives are saved daily by having weather satellites forecast our weather better. GPS emergency services respond quicker, 1000s of hours of medical research help medics back on earth. Nonstick compunds on you frying pan Velcro. The list goes on and on.

  • rate this
    +24

    Comment number 49.

    This is amazing. Trying to get a craft to travel across more than half-a-billion miles of space to land where you want it, isn't easy!

    Exploration is a natural instinct. It satisfies our curiosity. That in itslef is enough to make the effort. But importantly, too, the exploration we undertake now may well unlock the secrets to future survival.

    Well done to all involved!

  • rate this
    +109

    Comment number 48.

    Great acheivement.

    Before we knock the money spent, think of this statement.

    Prof Brian Cox claimed the UK has spent more on saving banks in a year than it had on science "since Jesus

    Maybe we will be able to land the bankers on Mars soon, they can lthen lend to no one just like on planet earth.

  • rate this
    +45

    Comment number 47.

    It looks like this a good week to bury good news as well as bury bad news. The Olympics are fantastic, but this is the most worthy human achievement in recent months.

  • rate this
    +8

    Comment number 46.

    Glad to see such a feat. Incredible. (Waiting for the weird religion/waste of money/starving kids comments.)

    If the US can do this we really can do anything. Now let's get that base on the moon & people on Mars before the riff raff moves in.

    After-though: Americans love to argue and make noise, but when we DO decide to come together at least we do it like we mean it ;)

  • rate this
    -6

    Comment number 45.

    Great achievement! Okay, it's true that maybe (definitely) money could be spent elsewhere to help fight disease/poverty/etc, but I don't think that's the way scientists see these things. They're (like children) busy discovering, and so using the results to help future generations - it's long term investment one could say.

  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 44.

    This is sooo cool! Great job, every1 involved!

  • rate this
    +12

    Comment number 43.

    "And another unimaginable amount of money is poured into a mission..."

    The money is neither relevant nor real - being merely numbers stored in computers of which we have an inexhaustable supply.

    Only the availability and use of real resources matters, weighed against the potential future benefits (which we cannot possibly know anyway, but may be huge).

  • rate this
    +8

    Comment number 42.

    Congratulations also to Jonathan for the quality of his articles and his lucid explanations.

  • rate this
    -102

    Comment number 41.

    It's all well and good getting this far and what a great achievment it is.

    The problem is that if Curiosity finds something that it wasn't supposed to find, NASA being the government run organisation that it is, will not allow a single word out to anyone or the rest of the world. We will only see updated pretty HD landscape pictures that we already know of.

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 40.

    First a vehicle roaming Mars.

    Next a supermarket trolley that behaves itself?


    Seriously, many congratulations to all that achieved this landing.

 

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