With millions of viewers around the world watching streaming video from mission control, NASA’s Curiosity Rover landed on Mars on Sunday night. Within minutes, it was transmitting grainy images back to Earth, with full-color photos expected by Tuesday.
NASA officials said the one-ton robot vehicle touched down in a deep crater at 10:31 p.m. Sunday. Curiosity’s descent-stage retrorockets guided the vehicle into position and slowly lowered it with nylon cords. When the spacecraft sensed touchdown, the connecting cables were severed and the descent stage flew off and crashed well out of the way, the officials said.
A signal confirming the rover was on the ground safely was relayed to mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, 154 million miles away.
The two-year, $2.5 billion Curiosity mission — which launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Nov. 26, 2011 — is intended to gather data that could help determine whether Mars once had an environment capable of supporting microbial life, and whether conditions are favorable for future missions that could send humans to the Red Planet.
The size of a small car, the six-wheeled, nuclear-powered Curiosity contains 17 cameras, lasers and other scientific tools, a weather station and a radiation detector.
Playing a key role in the Mars Science Laboratory mission is ATK, which built the lightweight composite heat shield, interstage adapter and tail sections of the Atlas V that carried the rover into orbit; the propellant tanks for the cruise thrusters that guided the spacecraft on its journey; and the descent thrusters that helped it land safely inside the Gale Crater.
ATK’s Goleta operation created the UltraFlex solar array that powered NASA’s Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and the Phoenix Mars Lander that discovered ice on Mars in 2008.
Click here for more information on the Curiosity Rover’s mission, or to follow along with interactive opportunities.