In 1976, NASA successfully touched down on Mars for the first time with their twin probes, Viking 1 and Viking 2. By 1982, both vehicles had lost communication, and their findings ultimately confirmed that there were no signs of present or previous life on the Red Planet. These results condemned the prospect of Martian exploration for several decades. Since Viking, the progression of knowledge in how to find life and how best to manipulate vehicles destined for Martian soil has paved the way to Earth’s most promising life-seeking mission to Mars yet: Curiosity.
After months of travel (the rocket containing Curiosity launched in November of last year), NASA’s rover touched down on Martian soil yesterday. The $2.5 billion mission was the most ambitious and excruciatingly planned yet. It was crucial that the 1-ton vehicle, which features three on-board chemistry labs, a laser for moving and destroying rocks and a multitude of state-of-the-art cameras, amongst a number of other features, was not to be damaged as it’s six wheels hit Martian soil.
The landing was certainly a success, but not for a lacking in extensive engineering expertise and a touch of risk. The final seven minutes of Curiosity’s journey were imperative, dubbed by the NASA team, “Seven Minutes of Terror.” After breaching Mars’ atmosphere at around 13,000mph, the vehicle began to decelerate via an entry, descent and landing (EDL) system. A 16-metre-wide supersonic parachute, the largest ever, slowed the craft to 200mph, before being detached via remote computer command. Rockets were then activated, further decreasing speed to less than 2mph. Since the rockets would disturb dust, which could damage the equipment at surface level, a built-in sky crane lowered Curiosity the final 21 feet.
As Curiosity descended, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was in prime position to catch it on camera, seconds before it’s parachute was removed. The orbiter has previously depicted the landings of Spirit and Opportunity, another set of twin probes, which landed on Mars in 2004. Spirit lost communication in 2010, but Opportunity is still active, after surviving more than 3000 Martian days, five gruelling winters, a number of dust storms and temperatures as low as minus 80°C.
Now that Curiosity has successfully touched down, it has already begun to send back images, the first of which depict the shadow of the craft on Martian soil, with Aeolis Mons (better known as Mount Sharp) looming in the distance. The rover is predicted to explore the surface of Mars for two years, focusing specifically on the Gale crater, before moving onward towards the foothills beyond. The crater is more than 3 billion years old and it is believed that water once pooled there.
NASA Scientist, Michael Meyer spoke optimistically to National Geographic, confirming, “One of the main reasons for going there is to figure out whether or not life ever started there.” He continued, “The big implication would be… the universe [could be] littered with places that have life.”