- Rover weighing a ton landed at 5.32 GMT (1.32 EDT)
- Textbook landing saw radical floating ‘sky crane’ used for the first time
- First pictures reveal mystery gravel on the martian surface
- Mission will search for the ingredients of life on the red planet’s surface using a scoop to dig into the soil
- President Obama hails ‘historic’ mission
By Mark Prigg
PUBLISHED: 00:35 EST, 6 August 2012 | UPDATED: 11:44 EST, 6 August 2012
The high-tech craft hit the top of the Martian atmosphere at 13,000mph, and was then slowly lowered by a radical floating ‘sky crane’ before gently arriving in a massive crater.
The news was greeted with cheers and shouts in Nasa’s Pasadena Mission Control, and within seconds the craft had sent back the first pictures of its new home.
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Jubilant scientists hugged, wept and distributed Mars bars to each other as mission controllers confirmed the landing.
‘Touchdown confirmed’, controllers said.
‘We are wheels down on Mars. Oh my God.’
The rover even has a Twitter feed associated with it, announcing its arrival by saying: ‘I’m safely on the surface of Mars. GALE CRATER I AM IN YOU!!!’
Nasa Administrator Charles Bolden hailed the success as a big step towards sending men to the red planet.
‘Today, the wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze the trail for human footprints on Mars,’ he said.
‘We’re on Mars again, and it’s absolutely incredible.
‘It doesn’t get any better than this.’
The mission was hailed by President Obama, who said: ‘Tonight, on the planet Mars, the United States of America made history.
‘The successful landing of Curiosity – the most sophisticated roving laboratory ever to land on another planet – marks an unprecedented feat of technology that will stand as a point of national pride far into the future.
‘It proves that even the longest of odds are no match for our unique blend of ingenuity and determination.’
The trickiest moment of the landing came in a truly out of this world gymnastics routine during Curiosity’s ‘seven minutes of terror’ plummet through the atmosphere.
When the rover had safely navigated its landing and touched down on the face of the Red Planet, Nasa scientists exploded with delight and some even broke down in tears, overwhelmed at the success of the decades-long project.
The team are already busy analysing the first images from the rover.
‘Curiosity’s landing site is beginning to come into focus,’ said John Grotzinger, project manager of Nasa’s Mars Science Laboratory mission at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
‘In the first HD image (above) we are looking to the northwest.
‘What you see on the horizon is the rim of Gale Crater.
‘In the foreground, you can see a gravel field.
‘The question is, where does this gravel come from? It is the first of what will be many scientific questions to come from our new home on Mars.’
Curiosity’s trajectory was so accurate that engineers decided to wave off a last chance to tweak its position before atmosphere entry. ‘We’re ready to head in,’ said mission manager Brian Portock.
As part of a long-running tradition, flight controllers broke out the ‘good luck’ peanuts before Curiosity took the plunge.
One scientist who could relate to the building anxiety was Cornell University planetary scientist Steve Squyres, who headed Nasa’s last successful rover mission in 2004.
This time around, Squyres has a supporting role and viewed the landing with other researchers in the ‘science bullpen.’
‘Landing on Mars is always a nerve-racking thing,’ he admitted.
‘You’re never going to get relaxed about something like landing a spacecraft on Mars.’
Sunday’s touchdown was especially intense because Nasa is testing a brand new landing technique.
Due to the communication delay between Mars and Earth, Curiosity was on autopilot.
There was also extra pressure because budget woes have forced Nasa to rejig its Mars exploration roadmap.
On average the red planet is 141.6 million miles from the Sun.
With a diameter of 4,222 miles, it’s around half the size of the Earth.
It’s absolutely freezing there, with an average temperature of -85F (-65C).
Gravity is much less powerful – slightly less than 40 per cent of ours.
The atmosphere is desperately thin – one per cent of Earth’s pressure – and not very nice for us humans because 95 per cent of it is carbon dioxide.
It boasts the solar system’s biggest mountain – Olympus Mons, a dead volcano.
Mars’s red colouring comes from the iron oxide that coats its surface.
Mars has huge amounts of ice at its polar caps. If they melted, it would cover the whole planet in water 11-metres deep, according to Nasa.
‘There’s nothing in the pipeline’ beyond the planned launch of a Mars orbiter in 2013, said former Nasa Mars czar Scott Hubbard, who teaches at Stanford University.
Curiosity was launched to study whether the Martian environment ever had conditions suitable for microbial life.
The last Mars rovers, twins Spirit and Opportunity, were cocooned in air bags and bounced to a stop in 2004.
The plans for Curiosity called for a series of braking tricks, similar to those used by the space shuttle, and a supersonic parachute to slow it down.
Next, it ditched the heat shield used for the fiery descent.
And in a new twist, engineers came up with a way to lower the rover by cable from a hovering rocket-powered backpack.
At touchdown, the cords cut and the rocket stage crashes a distance away.
The nuclear-powered Curiosity, the size of a small car, is packed with scientific tools, cameras and a weather station.
It sports a robotic arm with a power drill, a laser that can zap distant rocks, a chemistry lab to sniff for the chemical building blocks of life and a detector to measure dangerous radiation on the surface.
It also tracked radiation levels during the journey to help Nasa better understand the risks astronauts could face on a future manned trip.
After several weeks of health checkups, the six-wheeled rover could take its first short drive and flex its robotic arm.
The landing site near Mars’ equator was picked because there are signs of water everywhere, meeting one of the requirements for life as we know it.
Inside Gale Crater is a three-mile-high mountain, and images from space show the base appears rich in minerals that formed in the presence of water.
Previous trips to Mars have uncovered ice near the Martian north pole and evidence that water once flowed when the planet was wetter and toastier unlike today’s harsh, frigid desert environment.
Curiosity’s goal now is to scour for basic ingredients essential for life, including carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, sulfur and oxygen. It’s not equipped to search for living or fossil micro-organisms.
To get a definitive answer, a future mission needs to fly Martian rocks and soil back to Earth to be examined by powerful laboratories.
The mission comes as Nasa retools its Mars exploration strategy.
Faced with tough economic times, the space agency pulled out of partnership with the European Space Agency to land a rock-collecting rover in 2018.
The Europeans have since teamed with the Russians as Nasa decides on a new roadmap.
Despite Mars’ reputation as a spacecraft graveyard, humans continue their love affair with the planet, lobbing spacecraft in search of clues about its early history.
Out of more than three dozen attempts – flybys, orbiters and landings – by the U.S., Soviet Union, Europe and Japan since the 1960s, more than half have ended disastrously.
One Nasa rover that defied expectations is Opportunity, which is still busy wheeling around the rim of a crater in the Martian southern hemisphere eight years later.
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