Mars just got a plush new set of wheels: NASA's Curiosity rover.
That's right—the rover has landed! WOOHOO! Curiosity survived its "7-minutes of terror," as the scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have dubbed its utterly insane landing plan. Honestly, "terror" seems like too tame a word. "Anxiety coma" fits the bill better. These scientists had sit by and watch their $2.5 billion baby rocketing toward Mars at a speed of 13,200 miles per second, or about three times the speed of sound. After breaching the Martian atmosphere, it shot out a supersonic parachute which slowed its fall to around Mach 2. But the astronautical gymnastics were just beginning. The traditional good luck peanuts were broken out to calm mission control's collective nerves.
After the heat shield was discarded, numerous retrorockets stabilized the rover for landing. With four million people watching JPL's LiveStream of the event, mission control at last announced that their freakin' sky crane had successfully lowered the rover to the ground. The control room erupted in applause and tears, rejoicing again when the Odyssey Orbiter transmitted the rover's first pictures of its new digs. Curiosity sent postcard photos of its foot and its shadow home to us (what a thoughtful rover!). People watching the landing in Times Square chanted, "Science! Science! Science!"
Hopefully, Curiosity's staff will finally get some well-deserved sleep, knowing that their baby is safe and sound after its 350 million mile journey. Launched on November 26, 2011 from Cape Canaveral, this rover is much more massive and advanced than its older siblings Spirit and Opportunity, which landed on Mars in 2004. It houses the Mars Science Laboratory, an unprecedented tool kit packed with cameras, spectrometers, and sample analyzers, which will be used to determine whether or not life ever existed on Mars. "Are we really a one-in-a-gazillion accident?" senior scientist Matthew Golombek asked. "That's almost a theological question. And we need to run it down."
Curiosity's mission is projected to last for at least a full Martian year (687 Earth days), during which time the robot will live up to its name by analyzing the heck out of everything it comes across. Even mountaineering is on the schedule—Curiosity will scale Gale Crater's Mount Sharp, whose sedimentary layers are Martian natural history books waiting to be read. It will also be investigating manned missions to Mars, which NASA hopes to achieve by the 2030s. We'll let you know when they post their astronaut sign-up sheet.
For now, we extend our congratulations to the brilliant, hardworking scientists behind this ambitious mission, and to the science fanatics everywhere whose enthusiasm makes cosmic adventures possible. As NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said moments after the landing, "let the science begin!"
How stoked are you about the successful Curiosity landing?