At around 6.30am (GMT) this morning, after a journey lasting just over 8 months, NASA’s Curiosity rover arrived on the surface of Mars.
Planetary scientists across the world had to endure the “seven minutes of terror“ as the spacecraft made a rapid descent through the Martian atmosphere. Using a combination of rockets, a parachute, and a sky crane (!), the spacecraft decelerated from 20,000km/hour to only a tiny fraction of that speed as it touched down safely on the Martian surface. This was followed by a nervous 13 minute wait for the first signals from the Curiosity rover to reach Earth and confirm that it had landed in one piece!
Curiosity’s work began immediately and the first images have already been beamed back to Earth. The next few days will be spent testing the different scientific instruments onboard and getting the rover acquainted with its new surroundings before the real action begins. Curiosity is currently sat in the ~3.5 billion year old Gale crater. The rover will embark on a 2 year mission to analyze the rocks in Gale crater and determine whether Mars ever had an environment that could have supported life. This location has been chosen because the geological features and chemical compositions (observed by satellites orbiting Mars) suggest that there was once water there in the past, and water is considered a key ingredient for developing life as we know it.
Each of the previous successful Martian rovers, Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity, have made dramatic discoveries about Mars that would not have been possible using only telescopes and satellites. At a cost of ~$2.5 billion (~$7 per U.S. citizen), Curiosity is the most sophisticated rover to visit Mars yet, and over the next few years results from this mobile laboratory will shape how the next generation of planetary scientists view Mars and lay the ground work for future sample-return and human exploration missions.