Curious, Very Curious:
Curiosity's Historic Mars Landing
It was called the "seven minutes of terror," the amount of time it would take for the most complicated landing ever attempted – and it was attempted from 154 million miles away. Last night, history was made when NASA's Mars Rover dubbed "Curiosity" landed successfully on Mars.
The landing involved a new process that was seen as riskier than past landings and last night it was put to the test. Curiosity entered Mars' atmosphere moving at about 11,000 miles per hour. Friction from Mars' atmosphere slowed Curiosity down, and once it was only – only? – going about 1,300 miles per hour its heat shield was jettisoned and its super sonic parachute was deployed. At this point, Curiosity was only about 6 miles from the surface of Mars and its camera began taking photos at about 5 frames per second during its final decent (these photos have yet to be released but they should be amazing!). Once Curiosity was only 1 mile away from the surface, the rover and its decent stage, a platform with 8 rocket thrusters poised to slow Curiosity's decent, separated and turned on their engines. Finally, the sky crane system, also part of the decent stage, lowered the rover to the surface with a 25 foot tether, allowing it to land successfully wheels down on the surface of Mars.
Curiosity's landing spot, Gale Crater, was not the easiest place to land, but it was chosen for its scientific potential. Gale Crater is an ancient geological feature that was created around 3 billion years ago when a meteor slammed into Mars. It is thought to have once been a lake, which could mean Mars once had – or even still has – life. The crater also has an enormous mountain at the center called Mt. Sharp, which scientists are especially interested in studying after NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter satellite found the mountain's slopes contain distinct layers that have preserved a record of Mars' past.
The first pictures from Curiosity's historic journey were transmitted only minutes after it landed on the surface of Mars (one of which you can see above courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech). We should see many more over the course of the next Mars year or about 23 Earth months. You can keep up with Curiosity's journey by following it on Curiosity's Facebook Page, on Twitter @MarsCuriosity or by visiting NASA's Mars Science Laboratory website where you can view the video of the Curiosity team's reaction to its successful landing and the many pictures of Mars that are continuing to come in.
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This post was written by Robyn Norgan, who was watching live when the Curiosity team reacted to the successful Mars landing and was cheering right along with them!