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NASA's rover Curiosity lands on Mars

2:11 am - 08/06/2012

(CNN) -- NASA's $2.6 billion rover, Curiosity, carried out a challenging landing on Mars early Monday after traveling hundreds of millions of miles through space in order to explore the Red Planet.

The SUV-sized Curiosity made its dramatic arrival on Martian terrain in a spectacle popularly known as the "seven minutes of terror."

This jaw-dropping landing process, involving a sky crane and the world's largest supersonic parachute, allowed the spacecraft carrying Curiosity to target the landing area that scientists had meticulously chosen.

The mission control in NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California burst into cheers as the rover touched down. Team members hugged and high-fived one another as Curiosity beamed back the first pictures from the planet, some shed tears.

"Rationally I know it was supposed to work all along, but emotionally it always seemed completely crazy," said James Wray, assistant professor at Georgia Institute of Technology, who is affiliated with the Curiosity science team of Curiosity. "So to see all those steps being ticked off and actually working, it's a huge relief."

The spacecraft had been traveling away from Earth since November 26 on a journey of approximately 352 million miles (567 million kilometers), according to NASA.

The vehicle, which will be controlled from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has a full suite of sophisticated tools for exploring Mars. They include 17 cameras, a laser that can survey the composition of rocks from a distance and instruments that can analyze samples from soil or rocks.

The aim of its work is "to assess whether Mars ever had an environment able to support small life forms," NASA says.

If all goes according to plan, Curiosity's first stop will be Gale Crater, which may have once contained a lake. After at least a year, the rover will arrive at Mount Sharp, in the center of the crater. The rover will drive up the mountain examining layers of sediment. This process is like looking at a historical record because each layer represents an era of the planet's history, scientists say.

The phenomenon of sedimentary layers is remarkably similar to what is seen on Earth, in California's Death Valley or in Montana's Glacier National Park, says John Grotzinger, chief scientist of the Mars Science Laboratory mission.

Rocks and minerals found on Earth are different than on Mars, but the idea of a mountain made of layers is familiar to scientists. Unlike on Earth, however, Mars has no plate tectonics, so the Martian layers are flat and not disrupted as they would be on Earth. That also means that Mount Sharp was formed in a different way than how mountains are created on Earth -- no one knows how.

In these layers, scientists are looking for organic molecules, which are necessary to create life. But even if Curiosity finds them, that's not proof that life existed -- after all, these molecules are found in bus exhaust and meteorites, too, says Steve Squyres, part of the Mars Science Laboratory science team.

If there aren't any organics, that may suggest there's something on the planet destroying these molecules, said Wray, of Georgia Tech. But if Curiosity detects them, Wray said, that might help scientists move from asking, "Was Mars ever habitable?" to "Did Mars actually host life?"

Curiosity's mission is also significant in an era when NASA's budgets are shrinking and China is becoming more ambitious in its space exploration program.

"I feel like it's a signal that we have the capability to do big and exciting things in the future." said Carol Paty, assistant professor at Georgia Tech's School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. "You can't not be excited."

Liquid water is not something scientists expect to be apparent on Mars because the planet is so cold and dry, Squyres said. If the planet does harbor liquid water today, it would have to be deep below the surface, perhaps peeking out in a few special places, but not likely to be seen by Curiosity, Squyres said.

Rover to search for clues to life on Mars

It's hard to know how long ago liquid water would have been there because there's no mechanism to date the rocks that rovers find on Mars, Squyres said.

Evidence from the spacecraft NASA has sent to Mars so far suggests that the "warm and wet" period on Mars lasted for the first billion years of the planet's history.

"In order to create life, you need both the right environmental conditions -- which includes liquid water -- and you need the building blocks from which life is built, which includes organics," Squyres said. The Mars Science Laboratory is a precursor mission to sharper technology that could do life detection, Grotzinger said.

There aren't specific molecules that scientists are looking for with Curiosity. The attitude is: "Let's go to an interesting place with good tools and find out what's there," Squyres said.

Curiosity is supposed to last for two years on Mars, but it may operate longer -- after all, Spirit and Opportunity, which arrived on Mars in 2004, were each only supposed to last 90 Martian days. Spirit stopped communicating with NASA in 2010 after getting stuck in sand, and Opportunity is still going.

"You take what Mars gives you," said Squyres, also the lead scientist on the Mars Exploration Rover Mission, which includes Spirit and Opportunity. "If we knew what we were going to find, it wouldn't be this much fun."

Image from the Rover:

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vanishingbee 6th-Aug-2012 03:55 pm (UTC)
new technology being tested on MARS, which has most arrows pointing at "big ball of nothing".
layweed 6th-Aug-2012 03:56 pm (UTC)
How could you say Mars is a "big ball of nothing" if you've never had the technology on Mars to begin with?
vanishingbee 6th-Aug-2012 04:01 pm (UTC)
because we've been to mars and had a series of extremely uninteresting finds. I'm Mars-ed out.
layweed 6th-Aug-2012 04:04 pm (UTC)
I get that we've been to Mars, but the instrument suite that they put on previous rovers were fairly primitive compared to the type of thing they have on the new Curiosity lander. This one will give much more definitive results as to whether Mars ever supported life.
rex_dart 6th-Aug-2012 04:05 pm (UTC)
But don't you understand that Mars is boring and science's primary purpose is to be fun?
layweed 6th-Aug-2012 04:07 pm (UTC)
Tbh, if they find that all that methane spewing from those vents is the result of one gigantic Martian space cow, I'll take that as a "fun" discovery.
sleeky 7th-Aug-2012 11:01 am (UTC)
If it ain't oobleck idgaf.
vanishingbee 6th-Aug-2012 04:13 pm (UTC)
I just can't get excited about that at all. People are acting like this is a lot more significant than it is. Sure, they landed: that is ABSOLUTELY always something to be celebrated, because crashing is a disaster on all sorts of levels. But Mars has proven itself to be shockingly dull, scientifically. Much more akin to "exploration" breakthroughs than actual scientific discovery.

Is it good to double check before writing Mars off? Sure. It's just that to re-confirming the lack of life is more depressing than exciting.

If it does discover *signs of past life I will happily eat my words, however.

Edited at 2012-08-06 04:13 pm (UTC)
rex_dart 6th-Aug-2012 03:58 pm (UTC)
I feel like I'm talking to someone who shit on every previous particle accelerator ever built at CERN because none of them were advanced or big enough to find the Higgs boson when the LHC wouldn't be able to run without the old accelerators to literally feed it particles.

You do realize that Mars is closer to us than Jupiter, right? And that you usually learn to drive in a parking lot before you try your hand in the Indy 500?
vanishingbee 6th-Aug-2012 04:06 pm (UTC)
I do realize that. I just am not convinced this is really a step in that direction rather than a step in dawdling on mars. We've been to mars. We've been to the moon and took way too long to realize it was time to stop going. Soon enough they will realize that Mars is the same (unless there is some sort of SHOCKER, but really, that's unlikely).

The only upside to this in my opinion is that it'll keep scientists & other people employed for a few more years.
rex_dart 6th-Aug-2012 04:08 pm (UTC)
We get it. You're not excited by Mars.

Fortunately for the rest of us, NASA mission statement is not to entertain you; it's to do things like successfully landing intact mobile laboratories millions of miles away using technology that's never been seen before.
vanishingbee 6th-Aug-2012 04:15 pm (UTC)
And then when it finds a whole lot of nothing, people will look at it and go "well, at least we showed our landing technology works!"
theguindo 6th-Aug-2012 04:30 pm (UTC)
Which is an important step in being able to land similar probes on Jupiter's or Saturn's moons...

Just saying.
lickety_split 6th-Aug-2012 04:58 pm (UTC)
The technology you're using to post these ignorant ass comments is the result of lots and lots of "pointless" experiments by NASA.
wathsalive 7th-Aug-2012 12:34 pm (UTC)
thevelvetsun 6th-Aug-2012 05:48 pm (UTC)
Yeah, maybe it's WORTHWHILE to test our landing technology and perfect it on a planet that only takes 8 months to get to, rather than fire a rover towards Jupiter only to have it crash 2 years later.
baked_goldfish 6th-Aug-2012 11:48 pm (UTC)
It usually takes a whole lot of "welp" before we get to "holy shit." And sometimes those "welp" moments lead to inadvertent "huh, how about that" moments. Fortunately NASA isn't as ignorant of this as you obviously are.
astridmyrna 7th-Aug-2012 07:12 am (UTC)
"well, at least we showed our landing technology works!"

That's kind of important when it comes to sending spacecrafts onto space. They have to, y'know, land eventually, and I rather have the smooth landing and not a firey ball of molten metal.

Srs, though, for their to be progression in anything, there's going to be failures and/or mistakes. That is how people learn, so they don't make those mistakes/fail in the future.
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