Curiosity Has Landed
At 10:32 p.m. PDT on August 6th, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft successfully placed a mini car-sized rover named Curiosity on the surface of Mars. It’s location is Gale Crater, a 154 kilometer (96 miles) wide, 3.5 billion year old hole in the ground, whose origin is not yet fully understood. In the center of the crater stands the five-and-a-half kilometer (18,000 feet) high mountain, Aeolis Mons (commonly referred to as “Mount Sharp”).
The trip to Mars spanned over 350 million miles, requiring an 8-month lonely voyage. Getting Curiosity to Mars was the easy part; landing the nearly one-ton rover was another game all together. Unlike its predecessors, Opportunity and Spirit, Curiosity could not use the ‘air-bag’ approach to landing because of its immense size. Instead, Curiosity employed a retro-rocket to slow its decent after entry and was lowered onto the ground via a “Sky-Crane” (See video below).
Over the next Martian year (686 Earth days), Curiosity – which is powered by the nuclear decay of plutonium – will do a multitude of experiments with various scientific tools, cameras, a weather station, a robotic arm with a power drill, a laser that can zap distant rocks, a chemistry lab to search for the chemical building blocks of life and a detector to measure dangerous radiation on the surface – just to name a few.
I can’t wait to see what new discoveries are around the corner. Something incredible is waiting to be known.
Finally, I leave you with a quote from the late Carl Sagan, recorded only months before his untimely death.
Maybe we’re on Mars because of the magnificent science that can be done there — the gates of the wonder world are opening in our time. Maybe we’re on Mars because we have to be, because there’s a deep nomadic impulse built into us by the evolutionary process — we come, after all, from hunter-gatherers, and for 99.9% of our tenure on Earth we’ve been wanderers. And the next place to wander to is Mars. But whatever the reason you’re on Mars is, I’m glad you’re there. And I wish I was with you.