Mars rover to seek signs of life

2012-08-06 18:03

Pasadena - Nasa opened a new chapter in the history of interplanetary exploration on Monday when its $2.5bn nuclear-powered robot Curiosity beamed back pictures from the surface of Mars.

The one-ton mobile lab is the largest rover ever sent to Mars, and its high-speed landing was the most daring to date, using a rocket-powered sky crane to lower the six-wheeled vehicle gently to the Red Planet's surface.

"Touchdown confirmed," said a member of mission control at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory as scientists hugged each other and the room erupted in cheers late on Sunday. "We are wheels down on Mars. Oh, my God."

A dusty image of Curiosity's wheel, taken from a camera on the vehicle, confirmed the arrival of the car-sized rover and its sophisticated tool kit designed to hunt for signs that life once existed there.

A second image arrived within seconds, showing the shadow of the rover on the Martian surface. The official landing time was 22:32 on Sunday on the US West Coast (05:32 GMT on Monday), according to a Nasa statement.

The nuclear-powered rover is now set for a two-year mission to explore the Red Planet, including a long climb up a mountain to analyse sediment layers that are up to a billion years old.

When the landing was announced after a tense, seven-minute entry, descent and landing, Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory filled with jubilation as the mission team cheered and exchanged Mars chocolate bars.

President Barack Obama described the landing as "an unprecedented feat of technology that will stand as a point of national pride far into the future".

And Charles Bolden, the Nasa administrator, applauded all the other nations - such as France and Australia - whose scientists contributed to experiments on board the rover's Mars Science Lab.

Crazy but clean

"It is a huge day for the nation, it is a huge day for all of our partners who have something on Curiosity and it is a huge day for the American people," Bolden said.

Obama's science adviser John Holdren described the landing as "an enormous step forward in planetary exploration".

"And if anybody has been harbouring doubts about the status of US leadership in space, well there is a one-ton car sized piece of American ingenuity that is sitting on the surface of Mars right now," he added.

Success had been anything but certain. Nasa's more recent rover drop-offs involved smaller craft that were cushioned with the help of airbags.

In the final moments, the MSL craft accelerated with the pull of gravity as it neared Mars's atmosphere, made a fiery entry at 21 240km/h and then slowed with the help of a supersonic parachute.

After that, an elaborate sky crane powered by rocket blasters kicked in, and the rover was lowered down by nylon tethers, apparently landing upright on all six wheels.

Adam Steltzner, engineer and leader of the entry, descent and landing team, who has previously admitted the landing bid appeared "crazy", said that in the end, it "looked extremely clean".

Scientists do not expect Curiosity to find aliens or living creatures but they hope to use it to analyse soil and rocks for signs the building blocks of life are present and may have supported life in the past.

The project also aims to study the Martian environment to prepare for a possible human mission there in the coming years. Obama has vowed to send humans there by 2030.

The spacecraft had already been collecting data on radiation during its eight and a half month journey following launch in November 2011 from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Previous attempts by space agencies since 1960 have seen a near 40% success rate in sending landers, orbiters or other spacecraft to Mars.

  • wouter.basson.5 - 2012-08-06 18:22

    Hope there is no cat around!

  • arthur.hugh - 2012-08-06 18:23

    Awesome! Full details -

  • dewald.fourie.9 - 2012-08-06 18:31

    Why is the photos always of such a low standard. I can take better photographs with my iPad. With a budget of 2 bn dollars surly they can manage decent cameras?

      zane.zeiler - 2012-08-06 19:12

      lol, your iPad's CMOS sensor won't survive 30 seconds in the extreme low temperatures and heavy radiation exposure...

      dewald.fourie.9 - 2012-08-06 19:16

      Haha good point! However all I need is 30 seconds to take a 1 meg pic

      peake.grant - 2012-08-07 08:47

      This is an initial picture taken through the dust cover of the hazard avoidance camera mounted on the lower-front of the vehicle. A first colour image of Curiosity's surroundings should be returned in the next couple of days.

      theandystokes - 2012-08-07 11:48

      It's to do with data transfer rates... it took almost a day to get back 5meg's of data and most of that data is information about the health of the rover. Considering your Ipad's photo's are larger than 5 meg each you can imagine how long it would take to send back a few of those... Data transfer rates are set to increase when they raise the hi gain antenna. It's all on the nasa site :)

  • dewald.fourie.9 - 2012-08-06 19:07

    Hope the rover can solve the much debated methane levels on Mars biological or chemical. I am certain they will discover some sort of exotic extromofile bacterium or at least fossilized remains. Mars unfortunately wasn't given the opportunity for life to flourish (to low in mass to hold onto its atmosphere,core stopped spinning etc). When they discover life on Mars the next tantalizing prospect is Titan!

  • eidel.bock - 2012-08-06 19:50

    Dr. Jakob van Zyl, Project Formulation and Strategy Browse Resolution High Resolution Dr. Jakob van Zyl is the associate director of Project Formulation and Strategy at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Formerly, he was the director for JPL's Astronomy and Physics Directorate. Van Zyl received an honors bachelor's degree cum laude in electronics engineering from the University of Stellenbosch, Stellenbosch, South Africa. He received both his master's and his doctorate in electrical engineering from Caltech. Van Zyl joined JPL in 1986 and held positions of increasing responsibility in the synthetic aperture radar program. In addition, he managed the Radar Science and Engineering Section, the Earth Science Flight Missions and Experiments Office, and the Focused Physical Oceanography and Solid Earth Program Office. He was appointed deputy director for the Astronomy and Physics Directorate in 2002. He has been an adjunct faculty member in the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department, University of Southern California, where he taught the class "Remote Sensing Systems from Space" from 1997 to 2001. Since 2002, he has been teaching the class "Physics and Techniques of Remote Sensing" at Caltech.

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