How do you land a car-sized rover on the planet Mars? NASA answered that question with eight years of careful planning and around nine months of space travel culminating in the most advanced rover ever touching down on the Red Planet last night at 10:32 p.m. PDT. Score one of the home team.
The one-ton rover called Curiosity will now begin a two-year mission to investigate whether the region ever offered conditions favorable for microbial life, NASA said. But before embarking on that mission, Curiosity had to survive what NASA dubbed "Seven Minutes of Terror," so called because the seven minutes prior to landing involved a combination of complex technologies never before attempted in outer space. That's no small feat when traveling through the atmosphere on Mars at 13,200 miles per hour (MPH) and trying to survive temperatures as high as 3,800F.
"Today, the wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze the trail for human footprints on Mars. Curiosity, the most sophisticated rover ever built, is now on the surface of the Red Planet, where it will seek to answer age-old questions about whether life ever existed on Mars -- or if the planet can sustain life in the future," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "This is an amazing achievement, made possible by a team of scientists and engineers from around the world and led by the extraordinary men and women of NASA and our Jet Propulsion Laboratory. President Obama has laid out a bold vision for sending humans to Mars in the mid-2030's, and today's landing marks a significant step toward achieving this goal."
This isn't the first time a rover has landed on Mars, but it's easily the most technologically advanced, as well as the heaviest. Curiosity is equipped with 10 science instruments with a total mass 15 times as large as the combined science payloads on two previous rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. Some of the tools have never before been used on Mars, including a laser firing instrument to determine elemental composition of rocks from a distance. As a result of the increased payload, Curiosity is twice as long as wither Spirit or Opportunity and fives times as heavy.