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
    +2

    Comment number 1099.

    And one more thing: those of you complaining that this is a waste of money while people are dying of cancer and other diseases, think about this:

    Big Tobacco just used spent over $40 million killing a proposition in California to fund cancer research at very high, consistent levels. Also, the GOP has made it impossible to do medical research using embryonic stem cells. Go complain to them.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 1098.

    @1071.David and George - Tory Boys
    "The Big Bang.......Self obsessed, self gratifying, self centered, narrow minded, selfish little men with little minds. No regard for their fellow humans who are suffering now!! A complete waste of time, money and intellect. Hang your pathetic heads in abject shame. Sad sad sad."

    So what exactly are you doing to aid human suffering?

  • rate this
    -6

    Comment number 1097.

    Re 1057.ConnorMacLeod: "People needed faith back then...Science has explained much of that ignorance..."
    I hadn't realised how much scientific materialsim was dependent on the idealogy of "progress" peddled in the 18th century. Thanks for educating me this afternoon.
    Seriously though, have you considered that it is your belief system (scientific materrialism) that is destroying the planet?

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 1096.

    Expanding human knowledge is good per se and this project as well as teaching us more about, not only Mars, but about the future of our own planet; will inspire those who will look at Mars and wonder "where next and when".

  • Comment number 1095.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 1094.

    1085.Norman Brooke

    I cannot even begin to explain how much you meant: SOME "people turn to God".

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 1093.

    @1057 'ConnorMacLeod'
    ~~
    To be fair, if you can post opinions the bible here, then perhaps you should be able to apply the same opinion on other holy books?

    Not religious myself - just an agnostic - so expect lightening bolts from all directions on this post.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 1092.

    The R&D that goes into these kinds of missions spawn consumer technologies that you probably do not, and never will, appreciate as a products of government research.

    And for those who would still say that it is a waste of resources, NASA's entire budget is immaterial to the US. As a percent of income, you probably spend more on chewing gum than the US spends on space exploration.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 1091.

    To those saying this was a waste of money, it only cost $1.9 billion taking it almost a billion dollars over budget. That may sound a lot, but to put it into perspective the London 2012 Olympics cost us £9 billion. I'm not saying the Olympics were a waste of money (I'm all for it), but the NASA budget it a tiny fraction of the total budget of the US government.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 1090.

    If you see this as a waste in any way, you yourself are a waste of resources. Space exploration and technology development is THE MOST IMPORTANT thing we can do. Inevitably we must get off the rock (i.e. Earth). If we don't develop now, then we screw our descendants (there will be billions upon billions). As important as the economy, world hunger, etc is, this outweighs on terms of impact.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 1089.

    Social systems designed to take care of people are administered by inefficient Government policies and procedures – so people suffer. Called Government waste. Exploration in space pushes the human spirit. Results are advancement in medicine and engineering as we attempt to go where no one else has gone before. In short this feeds down the chain and everyone at every level benefits. TGKR.

  • rate this
    -8

    Comment number 1088.

    Scandalous waste of money!

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 1087.

    lol. Are we supposed to care Count Nachos?

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 1086.

    For the price of the Olympics we could have had four, five maybe six Curiosity Rovers.

  • rate this
    -4

    Comment number 1085.

    1057. How come then people still turn to God when facing a disaster or life crisis? Why cant you be pro science and space etc and still have faith? You might turn to God one day. Man is so arrogant I cant see him surviving much longer.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 1084.

    All the USA is better than you concerns me.

    However, if we do need to get a one up on other countries concerning science then remember that it is Europeans that have preliminary discovered evidence of the Higgs particle. (theorised by a brit) This is something that the US couldn't achieve with the Tevetron based in Fermilab.

    We also waited for your most patriotic day to tell you that we did it.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 1083.

    1064 Philip - Science can't be judged morally, it is totally neutral. The Manhattan project to which you referred lead to nuclear weapons, yet also nuclear power & nuclear medicine. It’s how the technology is used that determines the morality.
    Even a knife can be used to cut a sandwich in half to share with a friend, or to cut someone's head off. You can't contemplate the morality of a knife.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 1082.

    This is the stuff of dreams, of childhood inspiration, of sparking the next generations' mind and of sending a tingle down ones spine. The frontiers of human endeavor, coupled with the thrill of audacious ambition is what this Mars missionis all about. I am truly amazed at NASA's achievement and congratulate the huge team who have spent blood, sweat and tears to make this all possible.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 1081.

    1060.PirateThom
    Man achieves a fantastic feat of exploration and engineering, still, "It costs too much". That should NEVER factor into our pursuit of knowledge.

    => Yup, they can get weird contraptions to Mars for $1bil - but they can't sort out their society here. Makes you wonder...

  • rate this
    +12

    Comment number 1080.

    If there is one great thing the US have done for mankind it is to help us reach out and understand the universe around us. The prospect of discovering traces that life once existed on Mars is very exciting.

    To those people who say it is a waste of money, there are much bigger wastes of money and this mission may could help our understanding of life.

 

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