Mars rover Curiosity safely lands on the red planet

Jon Von Radowitz – The Independent August 6, 2012

 A £1.6 billion one-ton robot rover the size of a small car landed safely on Mars today after one of the most daring and difficult interplanetary operations attempted

The six-wheeled rover Curiosity was lowered to the Martian surface on three nylon tethers suspended from a hovering “sky crane” kept airborne with retro rockets.

An expected signal confirming that the robot had landed was received on Earth at 6.31am UK time.

There were scenes of wild jubilation at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California when the message came through to mission control: “Touchdown confirmed.”

Curiosity can now start its 98 week mission – the length of one Martian year – exploring a Martian crater that billions of years ago may have been filled with water.

The nuclear powered rover is bristling with sophisticated technology designed to discover if Mars may have supported life.

Roughly the size of a Mini Cooper, Curiosity is twice as long and five times as heavy as the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity which landed on Mars in 2004.

The robot was just too heavy to have its landing cushioned by bouncing air bags – the method used for the previous rovers.

Instead scientists came up with the dramatic “sky crane” solution.

After entering the Martian atmosphere at 13,200mph, the capsule containing the rover was first slowed by friction and then a supersonic parachute.

Closer to the ground, the descent stage carrying Curiosity was released, firing retro rockets positioned around its rim. Above the landing site in Gale Crater, near the Martian equator, the rover was dropped to the surface on 25ft tethers.

The purpose of this was to prevent damage from sand and debris kicked up by the retro rockets.

Finally, the descent stage broke away to crash at a safe distance.

Curiosity’s target was Gale Crater, near the Martian equator, where there is geological evidence of past water.

The rover landed close to Mount Sharp, a 3.4-mile (5.5km) high peak in the centre of the crater with clay deposits around its base.

Proof that Curiosity was on Mars came in the form of thumbnail images showing the planet’s rock-strewn surface and one of the rover’s wheels.

The images were relayed to Earth by the orbiting Nasa spacecraft Mars Odyssey.

Dr John Bridges, from the University of Leicester, one of two British scientists leading teams on the mission, wrote in a live blog from mission control: “It’s down – landed!

“The first images are already being sent back via Odyssey. They are Hazcam images, showing a shadow cast by Curiosity on the Gale surface.

“Lots of very happy and excited people in this room! What an opportunity we have now to explore this fascinating planet.”

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