The Curiosity Rover is designed to examine Martian rocks and soils. Two instruments on its arm can study rocks up close, a drill can collect sample material and a scoop can pick up samples of soil.
NASA's Curiosity Mars Mission
Connects Past and Future
|This is one of the first images taken by NASA's Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars the evening of Aug. 5 PDT (morning of Aug. 6 EDT). Source: NASA.|
NASA's newest Mars mission, that landed on 05 August 2012, will draw on support from missions sent to Mars years ago and will contribute to missions envisioned for future decades.
"Curiosity is a bold step forward in learning about our neighboring planet, but this mission does not stand alone. It is part of a sustained, coordinated program of Mars exploration," said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "This mission transitions the program's science emphasis from the planet's water history to its potential for past or present life."
As the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft places the Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars, NASA used the Mars Odyssey orbiter, in service since 2001, as a relay for rapidly confirming the landing to Curiosity's flight team and the rest of the world. Earth was below the Mars horizon from Curiosity's perspective, so the new rover was not in direct radio contact with Earth. Two newer orbiters recorded Curiosity's transmissions, but that data was not available on Earth until hours later.
When Curiosity landed beside a mountain inside a crater at about 10:32 p.m. PDT, Aug. 5 (1:32 a.m. EDT Aug. 6), the 1-ton rover's two-year prime mission on the surface of Mars began. However, one of the rover's 10 science instruments, the Radiation Assessment Detector, or RAD, already has logged 221 days collecting data since the spacecraft was launched on its trip to Mars on Nov. 26, 2011.
"Our observations already are being used in planning for human missions," said Don Hassler of Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., principal investigator for Curiosity's RAD.
The instrument recorded radiation spikes from five solar flare events spewing energetic particles from the sun into interplanetary space. Radiation from galactic cosmic rays, originating from supernova explosions and other extremely distant events, accounted for more of the total radiation experienced on the trip than the amount from solar particle events. Inside the spacecraft, despite shielding roughly equivalent to what surrounds astronauts on the International Space Station, RAD recorded radiation amounting to a significant contribution to a NASA astronaut's career-limit radiation dose.
Curiosity's main assignment is to investigate whether its study area ever has offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life. To do that, it packs a science payload weighing 15 times as much as the science instruments on previous Mars rovers. The landing target, an area about 12 miles by 4 miles (20 kilometers by 7 kilometers), sits in a safely flat area between less-safe slopes of the rim of Gale Crater and the crater's central peak, informally called Mount Sharp. The target was plotted to be within driving distance of layers on Mount Sharp, where minerals that formed in water have been seen from orbit.
"Some deposits right inside the landing area look as though they were deposited by water, too," said John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, project scientist for Curiosity. "We have a great landing site that was a strong science contender for earlier missions, but was not permitted for engineering constraints because no earlier landing could be targeted precisely enough to hit a safe area inside Gale Crater. The science team feels very optimistic about exploration of Mount Sharp and the surrounding region that includes the landing ellipse."
Mission engineers designed a sky crane maneuver, lowering Curiosity on nylon cords from a rocket backpack because the rover is too heavy to use the airbag system developed for earlier rovers. "We know it looks crazy," said Adam Steltzner of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, leader of the team that developed the system. "It really is the result of careful choices." By designing the aeroshell enclosing Curiosity to create lift and be steerable, engineers were able to build a system that lands much more precisely instead of dropping like a rock.
JPL, a division of Caltech, manages the Mars Science Laboratory for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington.
Guy Webster/D.C. Agle 818-354-6278/818-393-9011
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
Guy.Webster@jpl.nasa.gov / Agle@jpl.nasa.gov
Dwayne Brown/Steve Cole
NASA Headquarters, Washington 202-358-1726/202-358-0918
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