Controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory broke into cheers as touchdown of Curiosity (also known as the Mars Science Laboratory) was confirmed. NASA’s latest and biggest rover landed on the Red Planet on 6 August 2012 06:32am UK time. The car-sized rover came to rest near the foot of Mount Sharp in the Gale Crater and, during its two-year prime mission, it will study the region for signs of past and present habitability. The successful landing marks the end of a 36-week voyage to Mars, but the true mission has only just begun. Having landed three rovers on Mars in the past, Curiosity represents a significant step forward for NASA.
Speaking to Space Answers about Curiosity, Michael Meyer (program scientist for MSL) told us about the groundbreaking mission. “One of the things that really makes this mission pretty exciting is that the amount of information that we have about the landing site from our orbital assets is phenomenal, so we’ve already plotted out likely pathways of where to go. It’s great to approach it with that sort of prior knowledge because when we find something that’s different it’ll provide us with an ‘aha!’ moment.
“The other exciting thing is that the instrumentation on MSL is fantastic. [There’s an] analytical lab that can work out the mineralogy of a rock, which is going to be a tremendous help. Then there’s the ability to actually look at the composition of things, including organics, and that is going to be a tremendous furthering of our understanding of the rocks that we’re finding. And then there’s a new instrument that hasn’t been used before which could end up being a great survey tool, and that’s the ChemCam laser. It shoots a laser at something within seven metres of itself, and it’s able to get a spectrograph of the plasma that’s generated, and from that you get the elemental composition.”
The actual method of getting to the surface was revolutionary, looking like something more akin to a science fiction film than a serious scientific mission to a planet in our Solar System (see video above). Michael explained to us why the Sky Crane design was picked for the mission: “It wasn’t just the desire to have something that looked like a Rube Goldberg device! It turns out that a lot of the elements of the Sky Crane are the same as those used in Spirit and Opportunity, such as retro rockets and the whole aeroshell design. So parts of it are very similar to what’s been used before, it’s just used in a different way.
“What had happened is that the whole Sky Crane concept actually was a consideration when the air bags were being designed for the MERs [Mars Exploration Rovers Opportunity and Spirit], but those rovers were light enough that air bags would work so they went with that design. The Sky Crane concept was still floating around though, and when it came to MSL we wanted to build a system that we could use not only for this mission but also for future missions. We needed to find out how we could get a metric ton to the surface.”
One of MSL’s primary goals is to determine if Mars was once a suitable environment for life to gain a foothold. Using its variety of instruments the rover will be probing the surface for signs of organics to discern whether there are any traces of life. As Michael puts it succinctly, “the million dollar question is are there organics made by Martian life?”
You can be sure that we’ll be keeping up to date with the Mars Science Laboratory mission over the coming days, weeks, months and years as it probes the Red Planet like no vehicle has ever done before.
Images courtesy of NASA and JPL.