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August Tue 07, 2012
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Scientists and engineers at NASA experienced seven minutes of terror Sunday night as Curiosity, the largest and most intelligent roving laboratory ever built, landed on Mars.Curiosity is beginning its two year mission to examine Mars for past habitability. The rover will look at the climate and geology of the Red Planet, analyzing rocks for organic materials and studying the layers of rock to determine more about Mars’ history. This project, which cost 2.5 billion dollars, also has the goal of preparing for future manned missions to Mars.The landing of the rover was particularly tricky given its large size. Though the calculations had been done carefully and meticulously, there was still a high risk of failure. The operation lasted 420 seconds, “seven minutes of terror”.The rover is 9.5 feet long, 8.9 feet wide and 7.1 feet tall. It weighs 380 pounds. It has high resolution cameras, laser beams, drilling devices and other equipment inside it and it is able to roll over obstacles and take pictures and samples of rocks. Being so large and heavy, the landing procedures were even trickier than with past projects. For example, air bags could not be utilized. The atmosphere on Mars is also quite thin, so the rover would not be slowed down enough with a simple parachute.The first step of the landing was a guided entry with a heat shield to protect against the atmosphere of Mars. After entering, the supersonic parachute was deployed, the largest ever used, and the heat shield fell away. The next step began when the rover was detached from the original aeroshell in which it was contained. At this stage, the rover was supported from above by the descent stage, a platform with rocket thrusters that went off to counteract the gravity pulling the rover to the ground. Lastly, the rover was lowered from the descent stage by the sky crane, a new system that gently lowered the rover down until its wheels touched the ground, waited a few seconds, and then cut the cables and flew away to crash land at some distance.The official confirmation of the landing of Curiosity came from data sent by the Mars Odyssey probe. At that point, scientists burst into cheers, hugging and high fiving one another, as what seemed like an impossible dream became reality. Now we just have to wait for the results.Watch the video of the landing and the scientists’ reactions on the next page.
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