Tuesday, August 7, 2012

'Curiosity' Spacecraft Successfully Lands on Mars: 2-Year Hunt Begins

In an ecstatic moment of triumph for outer space exploration, the NASA's robotic 'Curiosity' spacecraft successfully landed on Mars on August 5 to begin its pioneering two-year hunt to find out if the red planet once hosted conditions suitable for life. The spacecraft is the largest and most advanced ever sent to another planet.

"Touchdown confirmed," the triumphant NASA engineer Allen Chen claimed in the control room as America's most high-tech interplanetary rover survived a harrowing plunge throughout the Mars' thin atmosphere to touch down on the red planet. The Curiosity started beaming live images from inside the crater where it had landed.

The $2.5 billion spacecraft is the largest and most advanced ever sent to another planet. The car-size, one-ton rover's descent-stage retrorockets fired, guiding it in a "sky crane" maneuver to the surface of the Mars.

Just minutes after the signal arrived that the landing had gone off successfully, Curiosity beamed back its first black-and-white thumbnail image of Mars. Soon after, a bigger image -- 256 by 256 pixels large -- showed up onscreen at the laboratory. Curiosity is expected to revolutionize the understanding of Mars, gathering evidence that Mars is or was capable of fostering life, probably in microbial form.

Leaps in Deep-Space Exploration
The spacecraft is also expected to pave the way for important leaps in deep-space exploration, including bringing Martian rock or soil back to Earth for detailed analysis and, eventually, human exploration.

Scientists have found signs of water on the red planet, though it is now a dry place with a thin atmosphere, extreme winters and dust storms.

Curiosity is not equipped to search for living or fossil microorganisms but it will look for basic ingredients essential for life, including carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, sulphur and oxygen.

Curiosity traveled nearly 570 million kilometers since it was launched in November. The spacecraft was functioning properly as it sped toward its target.

Curiosity carries 10 science instruments with a total mass 15 times as large as the science payloads on the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Some of the tools are the first of their kind on Mars, such as a laser-firing instrument for checking elemental composition of rocks from a distance.

The rover will use a drill and scoop at the end of its robotic arm to gather soil and powdered samples of rock interiors, then sieve and parcel out these samples into analytical laboratory instruments inside the rover.

Images from Mars Released
NASA scientists have released images from the Mars rover Curiosity showing the surface of the red planet as well as images of Mars' Mount Sharp and the rim of the Gale Crater.

Images sent back to earth from the rover show aspects of the surface of Mars, including dark dunes and impact craters as well as dust moving below the robot.

NASA also released high resolution images taken from the rover. One showed Mars' Mount Sharp and another showed part of the rim of the Gale Crater shortly after the rover landed.

To handle this science toolkit, Curiosity is twice as long and five times as heavy as Spirit or Opportunity. The Gale Crater landing site places the rover within driving distance of layers of the crater's interior mountain. Observations from orbit have identified clay and sulfate minerals in the lower layers, indicating a wet history.

The landing site was 154 million miles from home, enough distance that the spacecraft's elaborate landing sequence had to be automated.

Great Expectations
An Indian scientist who was a part of the NASA team which had identified the landing site of the ‘Curiosity’ rover on the red planet, described the spot as “very exciting” and holding “great promise.”

The scientist Amitabh Ghosh, chair of the science operations working group at NASA Mars Exploration Rover Mission, was a member of the team that zeroed in on the Gale crater location where the rover successfully landed.

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