In the early morning hours of Aug. 6, the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landed in the Gale Crater on the surface of Mars, completing a more than eight-month voyage to the Red Planet fraught with anxiety and anticipation.
"Seven minutes of terror" ends in triumph
NASA reports that Curiosity, a car sized rover laden with scientific instruments, touched down in the Gale Crater at the foot of a three-mile-high, 96-mile diameter mountain. In order to accomplish this feat, Curiosity had to conduct a series of maneuvers involving a heat shield, parachutes, retro rockets, and finally an innovative sky crane that lowered the Curiosity rover down to the Martian surface to a soft landing.
Curiosity confirms landing with first image from the Martian surface
Shortly after landing, according to NASA, Curiosity confirmed that it had landed safely be sending an image that showed one of the rover's wheels on the Martian surface. The picture was of lower resolution than the full color, high resolution images that Curiosity is expected to return during its nearly two-year science mission.
Curiosity to conduct two year science exploration of Mars
According to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the main mission of the Curiosity is to assess Mars' habitability. It will try to answer the question, did Mars ever have the capacity to sustain life? It will accomplish this task by rolling across the Martian surface, taking geological samples with a laser cutter and a scoop, and then analyzing those samples with a suite of instruments. Curiosity will take at least two years to conduct this mission, though it will likely have the capability of operating much longer, depending on Martian conditions and the durability of the rover's components. It should be noted that a previous Mars rover, Opportunity, is still operating many years after its planned lifespan.
Obama administration officials congratulate the Curiosity team
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, White House Science Czar John Holdren, and President Barack Obamahimself offered congratulations to NASA and the Curiosity team for a job well done. Holdren set the tone of the administration's reaction by also touting the White House's space exploration policy, which he said is aimed toward landing astronauts on Mars sometime in the 2030s. The Obama administration has proposed severe cuts in the planetary science exploration budget, however, revealing perhaps a disconnect between rhetoric and action coming from the White House. The planned cuts have proven to be controversial and have raised protests from the planetary science community.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.