THE spectacular landing on Mars by the Curiosity rover yesterday has mesmerised the world.
The rover, whose mission is to determine whether the planet once hosted life, is designed to scour the planet’s surface for the basic ingredients of life, such as carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulphur and oxygen.
Nuclear-powered, the size of a small car and packed with scientific tools, cameras and a weather station, Curiosity weighs 1 000kg. It has a robotic arm with a power drill, a laser that can zap distant rocks, a chemistry lab to sniff for the chemical building blocks of life and a detector to measure radiation on the surface.
Nasa used an new “sky crane” manoeuvre to drop the rover gently the last 15m from a “descent module” hovering like a helicopter. The descent module had gone from 21 200km/h – 17 times the speed of sound – to 0km/h in 6½ minutes.
All this drama took place inside a vast impact basin called Gale Crater, near the planet’s equator in its southern hemisphere, where the apparatus will scoop soil and drill and laser rock samples for one Martian year – or 98 Earth weeks.
This trip – a voyage that took more than eight months and spanned 566 million kilometres – is by no means the first probe of Mars. But more than half of the 44 attempts by the US, the Soviets, Europe and Japan since the 1960s have ended in disaster.
Satellites that orbit Mars have sent back images that clearly show dried river beds, large dried deltas and even glimpses of what might be liquid water running down cliffs during summer. This, it is surmised, may be the proof that Mars once harboured the basic ingredients necessary for microbial life to evolve.
It will take some time before scientists can answer that question with authority.
But for now, the tantalising black and white images of the rocky surface of the Gale Crater mark the success of a very complex, ambitious and delicate mission to Mars. Today those involved in the mission are, as one Nasa spokesman put it, “over the moon”.