Touch down! NASA’s Mars landing sparks new era of exploration
NASA’s Perseverance rover touched down safely in Jezero Crater on Mars on 18 February, kicking off a new era of exploration on the red planet in which rocks will be collected and returned to Earth for the first time.
Encased in a protective heat shield, Perseverance whizzed through the thin Martian atmosphere and then deployed a parachute to slow itself down. In a final landing manoeuvre, a ‘sky crane’ holding the rover fired its rockets to gently lower the six-wheeled, car-sized Perseverance to the surface.
The rover touched down at 3:55 pm US Eastern time, after a nearly seven-month journey from Earth. First images from the surface, taken through the clear lens caps of its hazard-avoidance cameras, showed a dusty landscape studded with rocks. Perseverance is now sitting on the smooth, dark floor of Jezero Crater, about 2 kilometres southeast of what was once a river delta, when the crater was filled with water. High cliffs — the edges of that ancient delta — are barely visible in the initial images captured by the rover.
The landing went as smoothly as engineers had hoped. "I almost feel like we're in a dream," says Jennifer Trosper, the mission's deputy project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. In the coming hours and days, the rover will photograph more of its surroundings and begin testing the scientific instruments it carries.
The mission’s goal is to roll around Jezero Crater and collect rock samples from the river delta and an ancient lake that might hold evidence of past Martian life. Ultimately, the rover will leave those samples at certain spots on the Martian ground where future spacecraft can retrieve them — making Perseverance the first step in a multi-decadal effort to bring Mars rocks to Earth.
Exploring the terrain
Perseverance’s arrival was even more of a nail-biter than other Mars landings, because the rover touched down in a geologically challenging spot. Jezero is full of steep cliffs, large boulders and treacherous sand dunes that the spacecraft needed to miss. Engineers at the JPL, which was where Perseverance was built, developed hazard-avoidance techniques to ensure a safe touchdown. Most notably, as Perseverance descended towards Jezero, it used a downward-pointing camera to quickly photograph the landscape and compare the terrain with a set of maps stored onboard. The spacecraft then steered itself away from hazards, coming to rest on a flat spot in one of the few safe areas. "Everything looks great," says Trosper.
The last rover to reach Mars was NASA’s Curiosity, in 2012. It has been exploring an ancient lake bed in Gale Crater, where it has discovered evidence for a once-habitable environment (although it found no actual evidence of past life on Mars).
Perseverance carries two microphones — the first ever sent to the planet — to listen to Martian sounds, such as wind and the crunch of rover wheels rolling across the surface. In 2018, NASA landed another craft, the InSight probe, some 3,500 kilometres away, but it has a seismometer that instead listens for ‘marsquakes’ shaking the ground. InSight scientists think there is a small chance that the probe could ‘hear’ Perseverance land on Mars, when two large parts of the rover’s landing system hit the surface. But they won’t know whether InSight detected the impact until the morning of 19 February, at the earliest. It would be the first seismic detection of a known impact on another planet and could reveal more information about the Martian interior, because waves such as these can help to map geological features below the surface. “All we can do is wait and hope,” says Benjamin Fernando, a planetary scientist at the University of Oxford, UK, who is involved in the effort.
Images from Perseverance's colour cameras, as well as video taken during its descent, are likely to be released in the coming days as well.
During its first 30 Martian days on the surface, the rover will be busy with checking out its instruments, including unfolding a mast laden with high-definition cameras and photographing the area around the landing site. One instrument will pull in some of the Martian atmosphere and attempt to use the gases it collects to make a few grams of oxygen, as a resource for future human explorers.
In the coming weeks, Perseverance will roll away from its landing site and lower a tiny, 1.8-kilogram helicopter from its belly onto the surface. The helicopter, named Ingenuity, will test the first powered flight on another world. “It will truly be a Wright Brothers moment, but on another planet,” says MiMi Aung, the helicopter’s lead engineer at the JPL.
During Perseverance’s first 3 months on the surface, team scientists and engineers will be working on Mars time, in which a day is nearly 40 minutes longer than an Earth day. That means they will often work through the night, their lives pushed into a sort of permanent jetlag. Working on Mars time, though, allows the team to be more efficient in planning daily operations, after they’ve checked in with the rover at the start of each Martian day.
Perseverance aims to travel quickly and efficiently, journeying at least 15 kilometres across Jezero in one Mars year (which is nearly 2 years on Earth) — the time NASA allotted for the initial mission. It carries 43 tubes for collecting Martian rock and dirt; the goal is to fill and lay down 15 to 20 of them by the end of that first year for future spacecraft to pick up.
The plutonium-powered rover could then roll onto a neighbouring plain to explore other environments that were suitable for ancient life and continue collecting rocks and soil. The earliest any of its samples could be returned to Earth is 2031.
Perseverance, which launched in July 2020, cost US$2.4 billion to build and launch and will cost another $300 million to land and operate during its first year on Mars. It is the third mission to reach the red planet this month — following spacecraft from the United Arab Emirates and China, which are both now in orbit.
The Chinese mission, Tianwen-1, will try to land its own rover on the surface as early as May.
Nature590, 535-537 (2021)
Updates & Corrections
Update 19 February 2021: This story was updated to include new details of where the rover landed in Jezero Crater and commentary about its touch down.
NASA's Mars rover is minutes away from a nail-biting landing attempt
After zipping hundreds of millions of miles through space, the Mars rover Perseverance is just minutes away from attempting to land on the red planet in what has been described as one of the most daring robotic maneuvers in NASA’s history.
The car-size rover, which launched in July 2020, is aiming to touch down on Mars on Thursday at around 3:55 p.m. ET. If successful, Perseverance will become NASA’s fifth rover to land on the red planet and will kick off the agency’s most ambitious mission yet to examine whether life ever existed on Mars.
“Perseverance is attempting to answer one of the biggest questions in the history of humanity: Is there life elsewhere in the solar system?” said Chris Carberry, co-founder and CEO of Explore Mars, a nonprofit organization that advocates for human exploration of the planet. “If people can’t get excited about this mission, I don’t know what’s wrong with them.”
Carberry said the mission could reveal tantalizing new details about Mars’ history and geology. But first, Perseverance has to stick its landing. And that will be no small feat.
Like its predecessor, Curiosity, the Perseverance rover’s descent to the Martian surface has been dubbed the “seven minutes of terror.” This is because a complex sequence of programmed events must occur at precise times in order for the landing to be successful. And because of limits with deep-space communication, engineers in NASA’s mission control may not be able to follow along in real time.
“Once it enters Mars’ atmosphere, the entire spacecraft is pretty much acting autonomously,” said Janet Ivey, president of Explore Mars. “You can’t send a message from Earth to divert it from landing on a hill or near a big rock. It’s a nail-biter for sure.”
Only around half of all previous attempts to land a spacecraft on Mars have succeeded, according to NASA, and Perseverance’s planned touchdown is particularly risky.
Once the rover enters Mars’ atmosphere, it will be traveling at roughly 12,000 miles per hour, according to NASA. A parachute will then be deployed and shortly before touchdown a “jetpack” will fire a series of retrorockets to slow the spacecraft. An intricate sky-crane — similar to the one used during the Curiosity rover’s landing — will then lower the rover to the Martian surface.
During the nerve-racking entry and descent phase, friction from Mars’ atmosphere will also subject the spacecraft to temperatures of more than 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit, mission managers have said.
The rover is aiming to settle in Jezero Crater, a 28-mile-wide basin just north of the Martian equator that scientists think was once home to an ancient river delta. If Mars once supported life billions of years ago, it’s thought that Jezero Crater could be the best place to look for potential fossilized clues in the region’s sediments and mineral deposits.
But Jezero’s landscape is also characterized by large boulder fields, sand dunes and cliffs that make a landing unpredictable and challenging.
“No Mars landing is guaranteed, but we have been preparing a decade to put this rover’s wheels down on the surface of Mars and get to work,” Jennifer Trosper, deputy project manager for the Perseverance mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement.
If successful, the Perseverance mission could be the start of a new era of Mars exploration, according to Robert Zubrin, author of “The Case for Mars” and founder of The Mars Society, a nonprofit organization that aims to advance human missions to the red planet.
“Perseverance could conceivably find fossilized microbial life,” Zubrin said. “If we could drill, find these microfossils, bring them up and subject them to all kinds of examination, we would find out the truth about life in the universe. That is powerful stuff.”
The mission will also lay the groundwork for future human missions to the red planet.
The rover is outfitted with a suite of seven tools to study the planet’s geology and past climate. In addition to high-powered cameras, Perseverance is equipped with a drill and robotic arm to collect samples, an instrument to examine the chemical composition of rocks and sediments, a tool to measure weather on Mars and an experiment to test if oxygen can be produced from Mars’ carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere.
The rover is also carrying a helicopter, known as Ingenuity, that mission controllers will use to attempt the first controlled flights on another planet. The 4-pound drone is designed to fly around and scout out nearby areas in and around Jezero Crater.
The Perseverance mission is part of a broader NASA initiative with the European Space Agency that aims to collect samples of rocks and sediment from Mars and return them to Earth.
NASA and the European Space Agency are not the only ones with their sights set on Mars. Earlier this month, separate space probes from the United Arab Emirates and China successfully entered into orbit around Mars, making them just the fifth and sixth nations to do so.
Denise Chow is a reporter for NBC News Science focused on general science and climate change.
Curiosity Rover on Mars: Facts and Information
The Mars Science Laboratory and its rover centerpiece, Curiosity, is the most ambitious Mars mission yet flown by NASA. The rover landed on Mars in 2012 with a primary mission to find out if Mars is, or was, suitable for life. Another objective is to learn more about the Red Planet's environment.
In March 2018, it celebrated 2,000 sols (Mars days) on the planet, making its way from Gale Crater to Aeolis Mons (colloquially called Mount Sharp), where it has looked at geological information embedded in the mountain's layers. Along the way, it also has found extensive evidence of past water and geological change.
[For the latest news about the mission, follow Space.com's Mars Science Lab Coverage.]
As big as an SUV
One thing that makes Curiosity stand out is its sheer size: Curiosity is about the size of a small SUV. It is 9 feet 10 inches long by 9 feet 1 inch wide (3 m by 2.8 m) and about 7 feet high (2.1 m). It weighs 2,000 lbs. (900 kilograms). Curiosity's wheels have a 20-inch (50.8 cm) diameter.
Engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory designed the rover to roll over obstacles up to 25 inches (65 centimeters) high and to travel about 660 feet (200 m) per day. The rover's power comes from a multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator, which produces electricity from the heat of plutonium-238's radioactive decay.
Related: How Long Does It Take to Get to Mars
According to NASA, Curiosity has four main science goals in support of the agency's Mars exploration program:
- Determine whether life ever arose on Mars.
- Characterize the climate of Mars.
- Characterize the geology of Mars.
- Prepare for human exploration.
The goals are closely interlinked. For example, understanding the current climate of Mars will also help determine whether humans can safely explore its surface. Studying the geology of Mars will help scientists better understand if the region near Curiosity's landing site was habitable. To assist with better meeting these large goals, NASA broke down the science goals into eight smaller objectives, ranging from biology to geology to planetary processes.
In support of the science, Curiosity has a suite of instruments on board to better examine the environment. This includes:
- Cameras that can take pictures of the landscape or of minerals close-up: Mast Camera (Mastcam), Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) and Mars Descent Imager (MARDI).
- Spectrometers to better characterize the composition of minerals on the Martian surface: Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS), Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam), Chemistry & Mineralogy X-Ray Diffraction/X-Ray Fluorescence Instrument (CheMin), and Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) Instrument Suite.
- Radiation detectors to get a sense of how much radiation bathes the surface, which helps scientists understand if humans can explore there – and if microbes could survive there. These are Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) and Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN).
- Environmental sensors to look at the current weather. This is the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS).
- An atmospheric sensor that was primarily used during landing, called Mars Science Laboratory Entry Descent and Landing Instrument (MEDLI).
A complicated landing
The spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Nov. 26, 2011, and arrived on Mars on Aug. 6, 2012, after a daring landing sequence that NASA dubbed "Seven Minutes of Terror." Because of Curiosity's weight, NASA determined that the past method of using a rolling method with land bags would probably not work. Instead, the rover went through an extremely complicated sequence of maneuvers to land.
From a fiery entry into the atmosphere, a supersonic parachute needed to deploy to slow the spacecraft. NASA officials said the parachute would need to withstand 65,000 lbs. (29,480 kg) to break the spacecraft's fall to the surface.
Under the parachute, MSL let go of the bottom of its heat shield so that it could get a radar fix on the surface and figure out its altitude. The parachute could only slow MSL to 200 mph (322 kph), far too fast for landing. To solve the problem, engineers designed the assembly to cut off the parachute, and use rockets for the final part of the landing sequence.
About 60 feet (18 m) above the surface, MSL's "skycrane" deployed. The landing assembly dangled the rover below the rockets using a 20-foot (6 m) tether. Falling at 1.5 mph (2.4 kph), MSL gently touched the ground in Gale Crater about the same moment the skycrane severed the link and flew away, crashing into the surface.
NASA personnel tensely watched the rover's descent on live television. When they received confirmation that Curiosity was safe, engineers pumped fists and jumped up and down in jubilation.
News of the landing spread through traditional outlets, such as newspapers and television, as well as social media, such as Twitter and Facebook. One engineer became famous because of the Mohawk he sported on landing day.
Tools for finding clues to life
The rover has a few tools to search for habitability. Among them is an experiment that bombards the surface with neutrons, which would slow down if they encountered hydrogen atoms: one of the elements of water.
Curiosity's 7-foot arm can pick up samples from the surface and cook them inside the rover, sniffing the gases that come out of there and analyzing them for clues as to how the rocks and soil formed.
The Sample Analysis of Mars instrument, if it does pick up evidence of organic material, can double-check that. On Curiosity's front, under foil covers, are several ceramic blocks infused with artificial organic compounds. [Related: Curiosity Rover Finds Methane on Mars]
Curiosity can drill into each of these blocks and place a sample into its oven to measure its composition. Researchers will then see if organics appear that were not supposed to be in the block. If so, scientists will likely determine these are organisms hitchhiking from Earth.
High-resolution cameras surrounding the rover take pictures as it moves, providing visual information that can be compared to environments on Earth. This was used when Curiosity found evidence of a streambed, for example.
In September 2014, Curiosity arrived at its science destination, Mount Sharp (Aeolis Mons) shortly after a NASA science review said the rover should do less driving and more searching for habitable destinations. It is now carefully evaluating the layers on the slope as it moves uphill. The goal is to see how the climate of Mars changed from a wet past to the drier, acidic conditions of today.
"I think the principal recommendation of the panel is that we drive less and drill more," Curiosity project scientist John Grotzinger said during a news conference at the time. "The recommendations of the review and what we want to do as a science team are going to align because we have now arrived at Mount Sharp."
Evidence for life: Organic molecules and methane
Curiosity's prime mission is to determine if Mars is, or was, suitable for life. While it is not designed to find life itself, the rover carries a number of instruments on board that can bring back information about the surrounding environment.
Scientists hit something close to the jackpot in early 2013, when the rover beamed back information showing that Mars had habitable conditions in the past.
Powder from the first drill samples that Curiosity obtained included the elements of sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon, which are all considered "building blocks" or fundamental elements that could support life. While this is not evidence of life itself, the find was still exciting to the scientists involved in the mission.
"A fundamental question for this mission is whether Mars could have supported a habitable environment," stated Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program. "From what we know now, the answer is yes."
Scientists also detected a huge spike in methane levels on Mars in late 2013 and early 2014, at a level of about 7 parts per billion (compared to the usual 0.3 ppb to 0.8 ppb). This was a notable finding because in some circumstances, methane is an indicator of microbial life. But it can also point to geological processes. In 2016, however, the team determined the methane spike was not a seasonal event. There are smaller background changes in methane, however, that could be linked to the seasons.
Curiosity also made the first definitive identification of organics on Mars, as announced in December 2014. Organics are considered life's building blocks, but do not necessarily point to the existence of life as they can also be created through chemical reactions.
“While the team can't conclude that there was life at Gale Crater, the discovery shows that the ancient environment offered a supply of reduced organic molecules for use as building blocks for life and an energy source for life,” NASA stated at the time.
Initial results released at the Lunar and Planetary Science conference in 2015 showed scientists found complex organic molecules in Martian samples stored inside the Curiosity rover, but using an unexpected method. In 2018, results based on Curiosity's work added more evidence that life was possible on Mars. One study described the discovery of more organic molecules in 3.5-billion-year-old rocks, while the other showed that methane concentrations in the atmosphere change seasonally. (The seasonal changes could mean that the gas is produced from living organisms, but there's no definitive proof of that yet.)
Checking out the environment
Besides hunting for habitability, Curiosity has other instruments on board that are designed to learn more about the environment surrounding it. Among those goals is to have a continuous record of weather and radiation observations to determine how suitable the site would be for an eventual human mission.
Curiosity's Radiation Assessment Detector runs for 15 minutes every hour to measure a swath of radiation on the ground and in the atmosphere. Scientists in particular are interested in measuring "secondary rays" or radiation that can generate lower-energy particles after it hits the gas molecules in the atmosphere. Gamma-rays or neutrons generated by this process can cause a risk to humans. Additionally, an ultraviolet sensor stuck on Curiosity's deck tracks radiation continuously.
In December 2013, NASA determined the radiation levels measured by Curiosity were manageable for a crewed Mars mission in the future. A mission with 180 days flying to Mars, 500 days on the surface and 180 days heading back to Earth would create a dose of 1.01 sieverts, Curiosity's Radiation Assessment Detector determined. The total lifetime limit for European Space Agency astronauts is 1 sievert, which is associated with a 5-percent increase in fatal cancer risk over a person's lifetime.
The Rover Environmental Monitoring Station measures the wind's speed and chart its direction, as well as determining temperature and humidity in the surrounding air. By 2016, scientists were able to see long-term trends in atmospheric pressure and air humidity. Some of these changes occur when the winter carbon-dioxide polar caps melt in the spring, dumping huge amounts of moisture into the air.
In June 2017, NASA announced Curiosity had a new software upgrade that would allow it to pick targets by itself. The update, called Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science (AEGIS), represented the first time artificial intelligence was deployed on a faraway spacecraft.
In early 2018, Curiosity sent back pictures of crystals that could have formed from ancient lakes on Mars. There are multiple hypotheses for these features, but one possibility is they formed after salts concentrated in an evaporating water lake. (Some Internet rumors speculated the features were actually signs of burrowing life, but NASA quickly discounted that hypothesis based on their linear angles – a feature that is very similar to crystalline growth.)
Issues with the rover
Vapors from a "wet chemistry" experiment filled with a fluid called MTBSTFA (N-methyl-N-tert-butyldimethylsilyl-trifluoroacetamide) contaminated a gas-sniffing analysis instrument shortly after Curiosity landed. Since the scientists knew the collected samples were already reacting with the vapor, they eventually derived a way to seek and preserve the organics after extracting, collecting and analyzing the vapor.
Curiosity had a dangerous computer glitch just six months after landing that put the rover within only an hour of losing contact with Earth forever, NASA revealed in 2017. Another brief glitch in 2016 briefly stopped science work, but the rover quickly resumed its mission.
In the months after landing, NASA noticed damage to the rover's wheels appearing much faster than expected. By 2014, controllers made in the rover's routing to slow down the appearance of dings and holes. "They are taking damage. That's the surprise we got back at the end of last year," said Jim Erickson, Curiosity project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, in a July 2014 interview. "We always expected we would get some holes in the wheels as we drove. It's just the magnitude of what we're seeing that was the surprise."
NASA pioneered a new drilling technique at Mount Sharp in February 2015 to begin operations at a lower setting, a requirement for working with the soft rock in some of the region. (Previously, a rock sample shattered after being probed with the drill.)
Engineers had mechanical trouble with Curiosity's drill starting in ate 2016, when a motor linked with two stabilizing posts on the drill bit ceased working. NASA examined several alternative drilling techniques, and on May 20, 2018 the drill obtained its first samples in more than 18 months.
Related missions and future missions
It should be noted that Curiosity isn't working alone on the Red Planet. Accompanying it is a "team" of other spacecraft from several countries, often working collaboratively to achieve science goals. NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter provides high-resolution imagery of the surface. Another NASA orbiter called MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN mission) examines the Martian atmosphere for atmospheric loss and other interesting phenomena. Other orbiting missions include Europe's Mars Express, the European ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, and India's Mars Orbiting Mission.
As of mid-2018, Curiosity is working on the surface along with another NASA rover called Opportunity, which has been roaming the surface since 2004. Opportunity was initially designed for a 90-day mission, but remains active after more than 14 years on Mars. It also found past evidence of water while exploring the plains and two large craters. NASA's Mars Odyssey acts as a communications relay for Curiosity and Opportunity, while also performing science of its own – such as searching for water ice.
More surface missions are on the way shortly. NASA's InSight mission – a stationary lander designed to probe the interior of Mars – launched for the Red Planet on May 5, 2018, and is expected to land on Nov. 26, 2018. The European Space Agency's ExoMars rover should launch for Mars in 2020 to search for evidence of ancient life. And NASA also plans a successor rover mission called Mars 2020, which is closely based on Curiosity's design. Mars 2020 will carry different instruments, however, to better probe for ancient life. It will also cache promising samples for a possible Mars sample return mission in the coming decades.
In the more distant future, NASA has talked about sending a human mission to Mars – perhaps in the 2030s. In late 2017, however, the Trump administration tasked the agency with sending humans back to the moon first. His administration also requested that funds for the International Space Station cease in 2025, in part to make budgetary room for a moon space station initiative called the Deep Space Gateway.
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Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for Space.com who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is the author or co-author of several books on space exploration. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota in Space Studies, and an M.Sc. from the same department. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University in Canada, where she began her space-writing career in 2004. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level, and for government training schools. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @howellspace.
NASA robotic rover exploring the crater Gale on Mars
Curiosity is a car-sized Mars rover designed to explore the Gale crater on Mars as part of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission.Curiosity was launched from Cape Canaveral (CCAFS) on 26 November 2011, at 15:02:00 UTC and landed on Aeolis Palus inside Gale crater on Mars on 6 August 2012, 05:17:57 UTC. The Bradbury Landing site was less than 2.4 km (1.5 mi) from the center of the rover's touchdown target after a 560 million km (350 million mi) journey.
The rover's goals include an investigation of the Martian climate and geology, assessment of whether the selected field site inside Gale has ever offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life (including investigation of the role of water), and planetary habitability studies in preparation for human exploration.
In December 2012, Curiosity's two-year mission was extended indefinitely, and on 5 August 2017, NASA celebrated the fifth anniversary of the Curiosity rover landing. The rover is still operational, and as of October 16, 2021, Curiosity has been active on Mars for 3268 sols (3358 total days; 9 years, 71 days) since its landing (see current status).
The NASA/JPL Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity Project Team was awarded the 2012 Robert J. Collier Trophy by the National Aeronautic Association "In recognition of the extraordinary achievements of successfully landing Curiosity on Mars, advancing the nation's technological and engineering capabilities, and significantly improving humanity's understanding of ancient Martian habitable environments."Curiosity's rover design serves as the basis for NASA's 2021 Perseverance mission, which carries different scientific instruments.
Further information: Timeline of Mars Science Laboratory
Goals and objectives
As established by the Mars Exploration Program, the main scientific goals of the MSL mission are to help determine whether Mars could ever have supported life, as well as determining the role of water, and to study the climate and geology of Mars. The mission results will also help prepare for human exploration. To contribute to these goals, MSL has eight main scientific objectives:
- Determine the nature and inventory of organic carbon compounds
- Investigate the chemical building blocks of life (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur)
- Identify features that may represent the effects of biological processes (biosignatures and biomolecules)
- Geological and geochemical
- Investigate the chemical, isotopic, and mineralogical composition of the Martian surface and near-surface geological materials
- Interpret the processes that have formed and modified rocks and soils
- Planetary process
- Assess long-timescale (i.e., 4-billion-year) Martian atmospheric evolution processes
- Determine present state, distribution, and cycling of water and carbon dioxide
- Surface radiation
- Characterize the broad spectrum of surface radiation, including galactic and cosmic radiation, solar proton events and secondary neutrons. As part of its exploration, it also measured the radiation exposure in the interior of the spacecraft as it traveled to Mars, and it is continuing radiation measurements as it explores the surface of Mars. This data would be important for a future crewed mission.
About one year into the surface mission, and having assessed that ancient Mars could have been hospitable to microbial life, the MSL mission objectives evolved to developing predictive models for the preservation process of organic compounds and biomolecules; a branch of paleontology called taphonomy. The region it is set to explore has been compared to the Four Corners region of the North American west.
A NASA panel selected the name Curiosity following a nationwide student contest that attracted more than 9,000 proposals via the Internet and mail. A sixth-grade student from Kansas, 12-year-old Clara Ma from Sunflower Elementary School in Lenexa, Kansas, submitted the winning entry. As her prize, Ma won a trip to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, where she signed her name directly onto the rover as it was being assembled.
Ma wrote in her winning essay:
Curiosity is an everlasting flame that burns in everyone's mind. It makes me get out of bed in the morning and wonder what surprises life will throw at me that day. Curiosity is such a powerful force. Without it, we wouldn't be who we are today. Curiosity is the passion that drives us through our everyday lives. We have become explorers and scientists with our need to ask questions and to wonder.
Adjusted for inflation, Curiosity has a life-cycle cost of US$3.2 billion in 2020 dollars. By comparison, the 2021 Perseverance rover has a life-cycle cost of US$2.9 billion.
Rover and lander specifications
See also: Comparison of embedded computer systems on board the Mars rovers
Curiosity is 2.9 m (9 ft 6 in) long by 2.7 m (8 ft 10 in) wide by 2.2 m (7 ft 3 in) in height, larger than Mars Exploration Rovers, which are 1.5 m (4 ft 11 in) long and have a mass of 174 kg (384 lb) including 6.8 kg (15 lb) of scientific instruments. In comparison to Pancam on the Mars Exploration Rovers, the MastCam-34 has 1.25× higher spatial resolution and the MastCam-100 has 3.67× higher spatial resolution.
Curiosity has an advanced payload of scientific equipment on Mars. It is the fourth NASA robotic rover sent to Mars since 1996. Previous successful Mars rovers are Sojourner from the Mars Pathfinder mission (1997), and Spirit (2004–2010) and Opportunity (2004–2018) rovers from the Mars Exploration Rover mission.
Curiosity comprised 23% of the mass of the 3,893 kg (8,583 lb) spacecraft at launch. The remaining mass was discarded in the process of transport and landing.
- Dimensions: Curiosity has a mass of 899 kg (1,982 lb) including 80 kg (180 lb) of scientific instruments. The rover is 2.9 m (9 ft 6 in) long by 2.7 m (8 ft 10 in) wide by 2.2 m (7 ft 3 in) in height.
The main box-like chassis forms the Warm Electronics Box (WEB).: 52
- Radioisotope power systems (RPSs) are generators that produce electricity from the decay of radioactive isotopes, such as plutonium-238, which is a non-fissile isotope of plutonium. Heat given off by the decay of this isotope is converted into electric voltage by thermocouples, providing constant power during all seasons and through the day and night. Waste heat is also used via pipes to warm systems, freeing electrical power for the operation of the vehicle and instruments.Curiosity's RTG is fueled by 4.8 kg (11 lb) of plutonium-238 dioxide supplied by the U.S. Department of Energy.
- Curiosity's RTG is the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG), designed and built by Rocketdyne and Teledyne Energy Systems under contract to the U.S. Department of Energy, and fueled and tested by the Idaho National Laboratory. Based on legacy RTG technology, it represents a more flexible and compact development step, and is designed to produce 110 watts of electrical power and about 2,000 watts of thermal power at the start of the mission. The MMRTG produces less power over time as its plutonium fuel decays: at its minimum lifetime of 14 years, electrical power output is down to 100 watts. The power source generates 9 MJ (2.5 kWh) of electrical energy each day, much more than the solar panels of the now retired Mars Exploration Rovers, which generated about 2.1 MJ (0.58 kWh) each day. The electrical output from the MMRTG charges two rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. This enables the power subsystem to meet peak power demands of rover activities when the demand temporarily exceeds the generator's steady output level. Each battery has a capacity of about 42 ampere hours.
- Heat rejection system: The temperatures at the landing site can vary from −127 to 40 °C (−197 to 104 °F); therefore, the thermal system warms the rover for most of the Martian year. The thermal system does so in several ways: passively, through the dissipation to internal components; by electrical heaters strategically placed on key components; and by using the rover heat rejection system (HRS). It uses fluid pumped through 60 m (200 ft) of tubing in the rover body so that sensitive components are kept at optimal temperatures. The fluid loop serves the additional purpose of rejecting heat when the rover has become too warm, and it can also gather waste heat from the power source by pumping fluid through two heat exchangers that are mounted alongside the RTG. The HRS also has the ability to cool components if necessary.
- The RCE computers use the RAD750Central processing unit (CPU), which is a successor to the RAD6000 CPU of the Mars Exploration Rovers. The IBM RAD750 CPU, a radiation-hardened version of the PowerPC 750, can execute up to 400 Million instructions per second (MIPS), while the RAD6000 CPU is capable of up to only 35 MIPS. Of the two on-board computers, one is configured as backup and will take over in the event of problems with the main computer. On 28 February 2013, NASA was forced to switch to the backup computer due to a problem with the active computer's flash memory, which resulted in the computer continuously rebooting in a loop. The backup computer was turned on in safe mode and subsequently returned to active status on 4 March 2013. The same problem happened in late March, resuming full operations on 25 March 2013.
- The rover has an inertial measurement unit (IMU) that provides 3-axis information on its position, which is used in rover navigation. The rover's computers are constantly self-monitoring to keep the rover operational, such as by regulating the rover's temperature. Activities such as taking pictures, driving, and operating the instruments are performed in a command sequence that is sent from the flight team to the rover. The rover installed its full surface operations software after the landing because its computers did not have sufficient main memory available during flight. The new software essentially replaced the flight software.
- The rover has four processors. One of them is a SPARCprocessor that runs the rover's thrusters and descent-stage motors as it descended through the Martian atmosphere. Two others are PowerPC processors: the main processor, which handles nearly all of the rover's ground functions, and that processor's backup. The fourth one, another SPARC processor, commands the rover's movement and is part of its motor controller box. All four processors are single core.
- Communications: Curiosity is equipped with significant telecommunication redundancy by several means: an X bandtransmitter and receiver that can communicate directly with Earth, and a Ultra high frequency (UHF) Electra-Litesoftware-defined radio for communicating with Mars orbiters. Communication with orbiters is the main path for data return to Earth, since the orbiters have both more power and larger antennas than the lander, allowing for faster transmission speeds. Telecommunication included a small deep space transponder on the descent stage and a solid-state power amplifier on the rover for X-band. The rover also has two UHF radios, the signals of which orbiting relay satellites are capable of relaying back to Earth. Signals between Earth and Mars take an average of 14 minutes, 6 seconds.Curiosity can communicate with Earth directly at speeds up to 32 kbit/s, but the bulk of the data transfer is being relayed through the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Odyssey orbiter. Data transfer speeds between Curiosity and each orbiter may reach 2000 kbit/s and 256 kbit/s, respectively, but each orbiter is able to communicate with Curiosity for only about eight minutes per day (0.56% of the time). Communication from and to Curiosity relies on internationally agreed space data communications protocols as defined by the Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems.
- Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is the central data distribution hub where selected data products are provided to remote science operations sites as needed. JPL is also the central hub for the uplink process, though participants are distributed at their respective home institutions. At landing, telemetry was monitored by three orbiters, depending on their dynamic location: the 2001 Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and ESA's Mars Express satellite. As of February 2019, the MAVEN orbiter is being positioned to serve as a relay orbiter while continuing its science mission.
- Mobility systems: Curiosity is equipped with six 50 cm (20 in) diameter wheels in a rocker-bogie suspension. These are scaled versions of those used on Mars Exploration Rovers (MER). The suspension system also served as landing gear for the vehicle, unlike its smaller predecessors. Each wheel has cleats and is independently actuated and geared, providing for climbing in soft sand and scrambling over rocks. Each front and rear wheel can be independently steered, allowing the vehicle to turn in place as well as execute arcing turns. Each wheel has a pattern that helps it maintain traction but also leaves patterned tracks in the sandy surface of Mars. That pattern is used by on-board cameras to estimate the distance traveled. The pattern itself is Morse code for "JPL" (·--- ·--· ·-··). The rover is capable of climbing sand dunes with slopes up to 12.5°. Based on the center of mass, the vehicle can withstand a tilt of at least 50° in any direction without overturning, but automatic sensors limit the rover from exceeding 30° tilts. After six years of use, the wheels are visibly worn with punctures and tears.
- Curiosity can roll over obstacles approaching 65 cm (26 in) in height, and it has a ground clearance of 60 cm (24 in). Based on variables including power levels, terrain difficulty, slippage and visibility, the maximum terrain-traverse speed is estimated to be 200 m (660 ft) per day by automatic navigation. The rover landed about 10 km (6.2 mi) from the base of Mount Sharp, (officially named Aeolis Mons) and it is expected to traverse a minimum of 19 km (12 mi) during its primary two-year mission. It can travel up to 90 m (300 ft) per hour but average speed is about 30 m (98 ft) per hour. The vehicle is 'driven' by several operators led by Vandi Verma, group leader of Autonomous Systems, Mobility and Robotic Systems at JPL, who also cowrote the PLEXIL language used to operate the rover.
Further information: Bradbury Landing
Curiosity landed in Quad 51 (nicknamed Yellowknife) of Aeolis Palus in the crater Gale. The landing site coordinates are: 4°35′22″S137°26′30″E / 4.5895°S 137.4417°E / -4.5895; 137.4417. The location was named Bradbury Landing on 22 August 2012, in honor of science fiction author Ray Bradbury. Gale, an estimated 3.5 to 3.8 billion-year-old impact crater, is hypothesized to have first been gradually filled in by sediments; first water-deposited, and then wind-deposited, possibly until it was completely covered. Wind erosion then scoured out the sediments, leaving an isolated 5.5 km (3.4 mi) mountain, Aeolis Mons ("Mount Sharp"), at the center of the 154 km (96 mi) wide crater. Thus, it is believed that the rover may have the opportunity to study two billion years of Martian history in the sediments exposed in the mountain. Additionally, its landing site is near an alluvial fan, which is hypothesized to be the result of a flow of ground water, either before the deposition of the eroded sediments or else in relatively recent geologic history.
According to NASA, an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 heat-resistant bacterial spores were on Curiosity at launch, and as many as 1,000 times that number may not have been counted.
Rover's landing system
Main article: Mars Science Laboratory–Landing
Previous NASA Mars rovers became active only after the successful entry, descent and landing on the Martian surface. Curiosity, on the other hand, was active when it touched down on the surface of Mars, employing the rover suspension system for the final set-down.
Curiosity transformed from its stowed flight configuration to a landing configuration while the MSL spacecraft simultaneously lowered it beneath the spacecraft descent stage with a 20 m (66 ft) tether from the "sky crane" system to a soft landing—wheels down—on the surface of Mars. After the rover touched down it waited 2 seconds to confirm that it was on solid ground then fired several pyrotechnic fasteners activating cable cutters on the bridle to free itself from the spacecraft descent stage. The descent stage then flew away to a crash landing, and the rover prepared itself to begin the science portion of the mission.
As of 9 December 2020, the rover was 23.32 km (14.49 mi) away from its landing site. As of 17 April 2020, the rover has been driven on fewer than 800 of its 2736 sols (Martian days).
Curiosity has a twin rover used for testing and problem solving, MAGGIE (Mars Automated Giant Gizmo for Integrated Engineering), a vehicle system test bed (VSTB). It is housed at the JPL Mars Yard for problem solving on simulated Mars terrain.
The general sample analysis strategy begins with high-resolution cameras to look for features of interest. If a particular surface is of interest, Curiosity can vaporize a small portion of it with an infrared laser and examine the resulting spectra signature to query the rock's elemental composition. If that signature is intriguing, the rover uses its long arm to swing over a microscope and an X-ray spectrometer to take a closer look. If the specimen warrants further analysis, Curiosity can drill into the boulder and deliver a powdered sample to either the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) or the CheMin analytical laboratories inside the rover. The MastCam, Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), and Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) cameras were developed by Malin Space Science Systems and they all share common design components, such as on-board digital image processing boxes, 1600 × 1200 charge-coupled device (CCDs), and an RGB Bayer pattern filter.
In total, the rover carries 17 cameras: HazCams (8), NavCams (4), MastCams (2), MAHLI (1), MARDI (1), and ChemCam (1).
Mast Camera (MastCam)
The MastCam system provides multiple spectra and true-color imaging with two cameras. The cameras can take true-color images at 1600×1200 pixels and up to 10 frames per second hardware-compressed video at 720p (1280×720).
One MastCam camera is the Medium Angle Camera (MAC), which has a 34 mm (1.3 in) focal length, a 15° field of view, and can yield 22 cm/pixel (8.7 in/pixel) scale at 1 km (0.62 mi). The other camera in the MastCam is the Narrow Angle Camera (NAC), which has a 100 mm (3.9 in) focal length, a 5.1° field of view, and can yield 7.4 cm/pixel (2.9 in/pixel) scale at 1 km (0.62 mi). Malin also developed a pair of MastCams with zoom lenses, but these were not included in the rover because of the time required to test the new hardware and the looming November 2011 launch date. However, the improved zoom version was selected to be incorporated on the Mars 2020 mission as Mastcam-Z.
Each camera has eight gigabytes of flash memory, which is capable of storing over 5,500 raw images, and can apply real time lossless data compression. The cameras have an autofocus capability that allows them to focus on objects from 2.1 m (6 ft 11 in) to infinity. In addition to the fixed RGBG Bayer pattern filter, each camera has an eight-position filter wheel. While the Bayer filter reduces visible light throughput, all three colors are mostly transparent at wavelengths longer than 700 nm, and have minimal effect on such infrared observations.
Chemistry and Camera complex (ChemCam)
Main article: Chemistry and Camera complex
ChemCam is a suite of two remote sensing instruments combined as one: a laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) and a Remote Micro Imager (RMI) telescope. The ChemCam instrument suite was developed by the French CESR laboratory and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The flight model of the mast unit was delivered from the French CNES to Los Alamos National Laboratory. The purpose of the LIBS instrument is to provide elemental compositions of rock and soil, while the RMI gives ChemCam scientists high-resolution images of the sampling areas of the rocks and soil that LIBS targets. The LIBS instrument can target a rock or soil sample up to 7 m (23 ft) away, vaporizing a small amount of it with about 50 to 75 5-nanosecond pulses from a 1067 nminfrared laser and then observes the spectrum of the light emitted by the vaporized rock.
ChemCam has the ability to record up to 6,144 different wavelengths of ultraviolet, visible, and infrared light. Detection of the ball of luminous plasma is done in the visible, near-UV and near-infrared ranges, between 240 nm and 800 nm. The first initial laser testing of the ChemCam by Curiosity on Mars was performed on a rock, N165 ("Coronation" rock), near Bradbury Landing on 19 August 2012. The ChemCam team expects to take approximately one dozen compositional measurements of rocks per day. Using the same collection optics, the RMI provides context images of the LIBS analysis spots. The RMI resolves 1 mm (0.039 in) objects at 10 m (33 ft) distance, and has a field of view covering 20 cm (7.9 in) at that distance.
Navigation cameras (navcams)
Main article: Navcam
The rover has two pairs of black and white navigation cameras mounted on the mast to support ground navigation. The cameras have a 45° angle of view and use visible light to capture stereoscopic 3-D imagery.
Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS)
Main article: Rover Environmental Monitoring Station
REMS comprises instruments to measure the Mars environment: humidity, pressure, temperatures, wind speeds, and ultraviolet radiation. It is a meteorological package that includes an ultraviolet sensor provided by the Spanish Ministry of Education and Science. The investigative team is led by Javier Gómez-Elvira of the Spanish Astrobiology Center and includes the Finnish Meteorological Institute as a partner. All sensors are located around three elements: two booms attached to the rover's mast, the Ultraviolet Sensor (UVS) assembly located on the rover top deck, and the Instrument Control Unit (ICU) inside the rover body. REMS provides new clues about the Martian general circulation, micro scale weather systems, local hydrological cycle, destructive potential of UV radiation, and subsurface habitability based on ground-atmosphere interaction.
Hazard avoidance cameras (hazcams)
Main article: Hazcam
The rover has four pairs of black and white navigation cameras called hazcams, two pairs in the front and two pairs in the back. They are used for autonomous hazard avoidance during rover drives and for safe positioning of the robotic arm on rocks and soils. Each camera in a pair is hardlinked to one of two identical main computers for redundancy; only four out of the eight cameras are in use at any one time. The cameras use visible light to capture stereoscopic three-dimensional (3-D) imagery. The cameras have a 120° field of view and map the terrain at up to 3 m (9.8 ft) in front of the rover. This imagery safeguards against the rover crashing into unexpected obstacles, and works in tandem with software that allows the rover to make its own safety choices.
Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI)
Main article: Mars Hand Lens Imager
MAHLI is a camera on the rover's robotic arm, and acquires microscopic images of rock and soil. MAHLI can take true-color images at 1600×1200 pixels with a resolution as high as 14.5 µm per pixel. MAHLI has an 18.3 to 21.3 mm (0.72 to 0.84 in) focal length and a 33.8–38.5° field of view. MAHLI has both white and ultraviolet Light-emitting diode (LED) illumination for imaging in darkness or fluorescence imaging. MAHLI also has mechanical focusing in a range from infinite to millimeter distances. This system can make some images with focus stacking processing. MAHLI can store either the raw images or do real time lossless predictive or JPEG compression. The calibration target for MAHLI includes color references, a metric bar graphic, a 1909 VDB Lincoln penny, and a stair-step pattern for depth calibration.
Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS)
See also: Alpha particle X-ray spectrometer
The APXS instrument irradiates samples with alpha particles and maps the spectra of X-rays that are re-emitted for determining the elemental composition of samples.Curiosity's APXS was developed by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA), the Canadian aerospace company that built the Canadarm and RADARSAT, were responsible for the engineering design and building of the APXS. The APXS science team includes members from the University of Guelph, the University of New Brunswick, the University of Western Ontario, NASA, the University of California, San Diego and Cornell University. The APXS instrument takes advantage of particle-induced X-ray emission (PIXE) and X-ray fluorescence, previously exploited by the Mars Pathfinder and the two Mars Exploration Rovers.
Curiosity'sCheMin Spectrometer on Mars (11 September 2012), with sample inlet seen closed and open.
Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin)
Main article: CheMin
CheMin is the Chemistry and Mineralogy X-raypowder diffraction and fluorescence instrument. CheMin is one of four spectrometers. It can identify and quantify the abundance of the minerals on Mars. It was developed by David Blake at NASA Ames Research Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and won the 2013 NASA Government Invention of the year award. The rover can drill samples from rocks and the resulting fine powder is poured into the instrument via a sample inlet tube on the top of the vehicle. A beam of X-rays is then directed at the powder and the crystal structure of the minerals deflects it at characteristic angles, allowing scientists to identify the minerals being analyzed.
On 17 October 2012, at "Rocknest", the first X-ray diffraction analysis of Martian soil was performed. The results revealed the presence of several minerals, including feldspar, pyroxenes and olivine, and suggested that the Martian soil in the sample was similar to the "weathered basaltic soils" of Hawaiian volcanoes. The paragonetic tephra from a Hawaiian cinder cone has been mined to create Martian regolith simulant for researchers to use since 1998.
Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM)
Main article: Sample Analysis at Mars
First night-time pictures on Mars (white-light left/UV right) (Curiosity viewing Sayunei rock, 22 January 2013)
The SAM instrument suite analyzes organics and gases from both atmospheric and solid samples. It consists of instruments developed by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, the Laboratoire Inter-Universitaire des Systèmes Atmosphériques (LISA) (jointly operated by France's CNRS and Parisian universities), and Honeybee Robotics, along with many additional external partners. The three main instruments are a Quadrupole Mass Spectrometer (QMS), a gas chromatograph (GC) and a tunable laser spectrometer (TLS). These instruments perform precision measurements of oxygen and carbonisotope ratios in carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) in the atmosphere of Mars in order to distinguish between their geochemical or biological origin.
First use of Curiosity'sDust Removal Tool (DRT) (January 6, 2013); Ekwir_1 rock before/after cleaning (left) and closeup (right)
Dust Removal Tool (DRT)
The Dust Removal Tool (DRT) is a motorized, wire-bristle brush on the turret at the end of Curiosity's arm. The DRT was first used on a rock target named Ekwir_1 on 6 January 2013. Honeybee Robotics built the DRT.
Radiation assessment detector (RAD)
Main article: Radiation assessment detector
The role of the Radiation assessment detector (RAD) instrument is to characterize the broad spectrum of radiation environment found inside the spacecraft during the cruise phase and while on Mars. These measurements have never been done before from the inside of a spacecraft in interplanetary space. Its primary purpose is to determine the viability and shielding needs for potential human explorers, as well as to characterize the radiation environment on the surface of Mars, which it started doing immediately after MSL landed in August 2012. Funded by the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters and Germany's Space Agency (DLR), RAD was developed by Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) and the extraterrestrial physics group at Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel, Germany.
Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN)
Main article: Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons
The DAN instrument employs a neutron source and detector for measuring the quantity and depth of hydrogen or ice and water at or near the Martian surface. The instrument consists of the detector element (DE) and a 14.1 MeV pulsing neutron generator (PNG). The die-away time of neutrons is measured by the DE after each neutron pulse from the PNG. DAN was provided by the Russian Federal Space Agency and funded by Russia.
Mars Descent Imager (MARDI)
MARDI is fixed to the lower front left corner of the body of Curiosity. During the descent to the Martian surface, MARDI took color images at 1600×1200 pixels with a 1.3-millisecond exposure time starting at distances of about 3.7 km (2.3 mi) to near 5 m (16 ft) from the ground, at a rate of four frames per second for about two minutes. MARDI has a pixel scale of 1.5 m (4 ft 11 in) at 2 km (1.2 mi) to 1.5 mm (0.059 in) at 2 m (6 ft 7 in) and has a 90° circular field of view. MARDI has eight gigabytes of internal buffer memory that is capable of storing over 4,000 raw images. MARDI imaging allowed the mapping of surrounding terrain and the location of landing.JunoCam, built for the Juno spacecraft, is based on MARDI.
The rover has a 2.1 m (6 ft 11 in) long robotic arm with a cross-shaped turret holding five devices that can spin through a 350° turning range. The arm makes use of three joints to extend it forward and to stow it again while driving. It has a mass of 30 kg (66 lb) and its diameter, including the tools mounted on it, is about 60 cm (24 in). It was designed, built, and tested by MDA US Systems, building upon their prior robotic arm work on the Mars Surveyor 2001 Lander, the Phoenix lander, and the two Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity.
Two of the five devices are in-situ or contact instruments known as the X-ray spectrometer (APXS), and the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI camera). The remaining three are associated with sample acquisition and sample preparation functions: a percussion drill; a brush; and mechanisms for scooping, sieving, and portioning samples of powdered rock and soil. The diameter of the hole in a rock after drilling is 1.6 cm (0.63 in) and up to 5 cm (2.0 in) deep. The drill carries two spare bits. The rover's arm and turret system can place the APXS and MAHLI on their respective targets, and also obtain powdered sample from rock interiors, and deliver them to the SAM and CheMin analyzers inside the rover.
Since early 2015 the percussive mechanism in the drill that helps chisel into rock has had an intermittent electrical short. On 1 December 2016, the motor inside the drill caused a malfunction that prevented the rover from moving its robotic arm and driving to another location. The fault was isolated to the drill feed brake, and internal debris is suspected of causing the problem. By 9 December 2016, driving and robotic arm operations were cleared to continue, but drilling remained suspended indefinitely. The Curiosity team continued to perform diagnostics and testing on the drill mechanism throughout 2017, and resumed drilling operations on 22 May 2018.
Media, cultural impact and legacy
Further information: Timeline of Mars Science Laboratory § Current status
Live video showing the first footage from the surface of Mars was available at NASA TV, during the late hours of 6 August 2012 PDT, including interviews with the mission team. The NASA website momentarily became unavailable from the overwhelming number of people visiting it, and a 13-minute NASA excerpt of the landings on its YouTube channel was halted an hour after the landing by an automated DMCA takedown notice from Scripps Local News, which prevented access for several hours. Around 1,000 people gathered in New York City's Times Square, to watch NASA's live broadcast of Curiosity's landing, as footage was being shown on the giant screen.Bobak Ferdowsi, Flight Director for the landing, became an Internet meme and attained Twitter celebrity status, with 45,000 new followers subscribing to his Twitter account, due to his Mohawk hairstyle with yellow stars that he wore during the televised broadcast.
On 13 August 2012, U.S. President Barack Obama, calling from aboard Air Force One to congratulate the Curiosity team, said, "You guys are examples of American know-how and ingenuity. It's really an amazing accomplishment". (Video (07:20))
Scientists at the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles, California, viewed the CheMin instrument aboard Curiosity as a potentially valuable means to examine ancient works of art without damaging them. Until recently, only a few instruments were available to determine the composition without cutting out physical samples large enough to potentially damage the artifacts. CheMin directs a beam of X-rays at particles as small as 400 μm (0.016 in) and reads the radiationscattered back to determine the composition of the artifact in minutes. Engineers created a smaller, portable version named the X-Duetto. Fitting into a few briefcase-sized boxes, it can examine objects on site, while preserving their physical integrity. It is now being used by Getty scientists to analyze a large collection of museum antiques and the Roman ruins of Herculaneum, Italy.
Prior to the landing, NASA and Microsoft released Mars Rover Landing, a free downloadable game on Xbox Live that uses Kinect to capture body motions, which allows users to simulate the landing sequence.
NASA gave the general public the opportunity from 2009 until 2011 to submit their names to be sent to Mars. More than 1.2 million people from the international community participated, and their names were etched into silicon using an electron-beam machine used for fabricating micro devices at JPL, and this plaque is now installed on the deck of Curiosity. In keeping with a 40-year tradition, a plaque with the signatures of President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden was also installed. Elsewhere on the rover is the autograph of Clara Ma, the 12-year-old girl from Kansas who gave Curiosity its name in an essay contest, writing in part that "curiosity is the passion that drives us through our everyday lives".
On 6 August 2013, Curiosity audibly played "Happy Birthday to You" in honor of the one Earth year mark of its Martian landing, the first time for a song to be played on another planet. This was also the first time music was transmitted between two planets.
On 24 June 2014, Curiosity completed a Martian year — 687 Earth days — after finding that Mars once had environmental conditions favorable for microbial life.Curiosity served as the basis for the design of the Perseverance rover for the Mars 2020 rover mission. Some spare parts from the build and ground test of Curiosity are being used in the new vehicle, but it will carry a different instrument payload.
On 5 August 2017, NASA celebrated the fifth anniversary of the Curiosity rover mission landing, and related exploratory accomplishments, on the planet Mars. (Videos: Curiosity's First Five Years (02:07); Curiosity's POV: Five Years Driving (05:49); Curiosity's Discoveries About Gale Crater (02:54))
As reported in 2018, drill samples taken in 2015 uncovered organic molecules of benzene and propane in 3 billion year old rock samples in Gale.
Descent of Curiosity (video-02:26; 6 August 2012)
Interactive 3D model of the rover (with extended arm)
Components of Curiosity
Mast head with ChemCam, MastCam-34, MastCam-100, NavCam.
One of the six wheels on Curiosity
High-gain (right) and low-gain (left) antennas
Curiosity descending under its parachute (6 August 2012; MRO/HiRISE).
Curiosity's parachute flapping in Martian wind (12 August 2012 to 13 January 2013; MRO).
Mount Sharp rises from the middle of Gale; the green dot marks Curiosity's landing site (north is down).
Green dot is Curiosity's landing site; upper blue is Glenelg; lower blue is base of Mount Sharp.
Curiosity'slanding ellipse. Quad 51, called Yellowknife, marks the area where Curiosity actually landed.
Quad 51, a 1-mile-by-1-mile section of the crater Gale - Curiosity landing site is noted.
Curiosity's first tracks viewed by MRO/HiRISE (6 September 2012)
First-year and first-mile map of Curiosity's traverse on Mars (1 August 2013) (3-D).
Ejected heat shield as viewed by Curiosity descending to Martian surface (6 August 2012).
Curiosity's first image after landing (6 August 2012). The rover's wheel can be seen.
Curiosity's first image after landing (without clear dust cover, 6 August 2012)
Curiosity's first color image of the Martian landscape, taken by MAHLI (6 August 2012)
Curiosity's self-portrait - with closed dust cover (7 September 2012)
Curiosity's self-portrait (7 September 2012; color-corrected)
Layers at the base of Aeolis Mons. The dark rock in inset is the same size as Curiosity.
Nasa curiosity landing
The entry, descent, and landing (EDL) phase began when the spacecraft reached the Martian atmosphere, about 125 kilometers (about 78 miles) above the surface, and ended with the rover safe and sound on the surface of Mars at 10:32 p.m. PDT on Aug. 5, 2012 (1:32 a.m. EDT on Aug 6, 2012).
Entry, descent, and landing for the Mars Science Laboratory mission included a combination of technologies inherited from past NASA Mars missions, as well as exciting new technologies. Instead of the familiar airbag landing of the past Mars missions, Mars Science Laboratory used a guided entry and a sky crane touchdown system to land the hyper-capable, massive rover.
The sheer size of the Mars Science Laboratory rover (nearly 900 kilograms, or almost 2,000 pounds) precluded it from taking advantage of an airbag-assisted landing. Instead, the Mars Science Laboratory used the sky crane touchdown system, which is capable of delivering a much larger rover onto the surface. It placed the rover on its wheels, ready to begin its mission at Gale Crater.
The new entry, descent and landing architecture, with its use of guided entry, allowed for more precision. Where the Mars Exploration Rovers could have landed anywhere within their respective 150 by 20 kilometers (about 93 miles by 12 miles) landing ellipses, Mars Science Laboratory landed within a 20-kilometer (12-mile) ellipse! This high-precision delivery will open up more areas of Mars for exploration and potentially allow scientists to roam "virtually" where they have not been able to before. The entry, descent and landing sequence breaks down into four parts:
- Guided Entry: The spacecraft was controlled by small rockets during descent through the Martian atmosphere, toward the surface.
- Parachute Descent: Like Viking, Pathfinder and the Mars Exploration Rovers, the Mars Science Laboratory was slowed by a large parachute.
- Powered Descent: Again, rockets controlled the spacecraft's descent until the rover separated from its final delivery system, the sky crane.
- Sky Crane: Like a large crane on Earth, the sky crane system lowered the rover to a "soft landing" - wheels down - on the surface of Mars.
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