Aug. 6: An American spacecraft deposited a robotic rover, a mobile scientific laboratory, on Mars today after what mission engineers described as the most challenging landing sequence in the history of space exploration.
As it approached the ground, the spacecraft released a tether of nylon cords to gently lower the rover named Curiosity on the surface strewn with small rocks at about 3pm on a late winter afternoon on Mars, or about 11am in India.
“We did it. Awesome,” said Anita Sengupta, an aerospace engineer at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who had tested sub-scale and full-size versions of a parachute that helped slow down the spacecraft’s descent -- a critical element during the entry, descent, and landing (EDL) sequence with no backup parachute. “Everything went perfectly,” she told The Telegraph.
A camera with a fisheye lens aboard Curiosity transmitted its first image of the rocky terrain about a minute after the EDL sequence webcast by Nasa from the mission control centre at the JPL to viewers around the world.
The silence in the mission control centre during the EDL sequence, punctuated by claps as the descent progressed step by step, exploded into cheers and a 10-minute session of hugs, handshakes, high-fives — and tears — after the landing.
“It’s incredible. It’s a huge day for us. That’s our rover on Mars,” Charles Bolden Jr, the Nasa administrator, said in the mission control centre minutes after the landing. The US has spent $2.5 billion on the project, $1.8 billion on the spacecraft alone.
Curiosity’s first day on Mars, is labelled Sol-0, where Sol is a day on Mars. Activities for Sol-0 include a basic health check and the firing pyros to unlock instruments and prepare them for deployment in the coming days.
The 899-kg rover is a nuclear-powered mobile laboratory tasked with roaming across the surface of Mars, collecting soil and rocks for chemical analysis to piece together a detailed geological history of Mars and to look for chemical signatures of life.
The rover’s planned lifetime is one Mars year — about two years on Earth. It is powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator that uses heat released by radioactive plutonium to produce electricity.
“This is the culmination of eight years of work — and the beginning of a new phase of exploring Mars,” Richard Rainen, a mechanical engineer who led a team of about 100 engineers that designed, built, and tested the rover.
“We’ll have health checks of the rover today, tomorrow, we plan to deploy its high gain antenna that will allow it to directly communicate with Earth,” Rainen told The Telegraph from JPL in a telephone interview.
The following day — Sol-2 for Curiosity — mission engineers will deploy a remote sensing mast equipped with cameras that will allow it to send long distance and high resolution images of the terrain around it.
Curiosity’s perfect touchdown — after a 36-week journey from Earth — relied on novel technologies never tested before for a landing on a planet and is expected to bolster Nasa’s confidence in maintaining its leadership in space exploration.
“Tonight, on the planet Mars, the United States of America made history,” US President Barack Obama said in a statement after the landing. “The successful landing of Curiosity — the most sophisticated roving laboratory ever to land on another planet — marks an unprecedented feat of technology that will stand as point of national pride far into the future,” Obama said.
Curiosity’s primary assignment is to determine whether the habitat on Mars was ever favourable to support microbial life. It has landed in a region called the Gale Crater which has residues of clays and sulfates and may have had pools of water in the past. Clays and sulfates can trap organic molecules, including compounds that might be fingerprints, if any, of ancient microbial life.
Late tonight, Nasa-JPL released an image of Curiosity caught in the act of landing, captured by another American spacecraft Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, in orbit around the planet since 2006. The image shows the spacecraft dangling at the end of a parachute as it descended towards the ground.
“I felt all the joy in the world was with us,” Ravi Prakash, an aerospace engineer of Indian origin, said after the touchdown. Prakash had helped test temperature and pressure sensors on the heat shield that protected the spacecraft during its fiery entry into the Martian atmosphere.
The landing was particularly challenging because Curiosity is the heaviest rover in space exploration history, the target landing area chosen was much smaller than in earlier landings, and the tether system had never been used before, he said.
Rainen said the Curiosity’s first drives around the terrain are likely to start in about a week. “We’re getting ready to begin science,” said Scott Hubbard, an astrobiologist at Stanford University, who’s also been associated with four other rovers sent to Mars over the past 15 years.
Nasa administrator Charles Bolden Jr, in his blog after the landing, asserted America’s position of leadership in space exploration.
After the retirement of the space shuttle programme, there were suggestions that Nasa’s leadership in the exploration of space was coming to an end. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” Bolden wrote, citing future missions, including a test flight of a deep space crew vehicle during 2014.
“The $2.5-billion investment in the project was not sent on Mars, but right here on Earth, supporting 7,000 jobs in 31 states,” Bolden wrote.