Historic morning to remember as Curiosity craft lands safely on Mars
Early in the morning on 6 August, astronomers the world over were on a knife-edge: they eagerly awaited to find out if the Curiosity spacecraft had successfully landed on Mars, one of the trickiest parts of the most ambitious interplanetary exploration project ever carried out.
At 7.31 am Central European Time (CET), the news everyone had been anxious to hear came through: Curiosity had made it, even sending back images of the red planet taken with one of its fisheye wide-angle lenses to confirm its arrival.
When Curiosity entered the atmosphere, it was travelling at a speed of almost 21 000 km/h, but to ensure a gentle landing it had to rapidly decelerate in just a few minutes to a speed of less than 3.6 km/hr.
This tight window was dubbed the 'seven minutes of terror' by space scientists - one small landing error could have thrown off the whole mission.
But luckily everything went smoothly, and Curiosity, the largest planetary rover ever to reach the Red Planet's surface, can now begin its 98-day mission. Curiosity is twice as long and five times as heavy as the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which landed on Mars in 2004.
Curiosity's touchdown on Mars marks the beginning of National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA's) Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) project, whose aim is to study Mars' habitability, climate and geology, with a view to collecting data for a potential future human mission to the planet a few years down the line.
The craft landed in Gale Crater, an impact crater created when an asteroid or comet slammed into the planet between 3.5 billion and 3.8 billion years ago. A mound of rock, known as Mount Sharp, rises 5 km up from the floor of the crater and appears to be made up of ancient sediments deposited when Mars still had water on its surface.
During its descent, Curiosity transmitted a stream of data that was relayed back to Earth by two nearby NASA spacecraft (Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter) and the European Space Agency's (ESA) Mars Express. Relaying this data provided crucial support to the NASA's MSL mission.
Specialists at the European Space Agency's (ESA's) European Space Operation Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany picked up crucial information about the craft's velocity and direction, as recorded by Mars Express during Curiosity's entry and descent. Mars Express picked up MSL signals about 10 minutes before it entered the atmosphere, for its critical descent and landing phase.
'We tracked MSL for about 28 minutes, then lost contact as expected, just a few moments before Curiosity's touchdown in Gale Crater,' comments Michel Denis, Mars Express Spacecraft Operations Manager. 'NASA now have this valuable data and everyone here is delighted to have helped support Curiosity's arrival at Mars.'
In the coming weeks, Mars Express and the operations team at ESOC will perform several data relay overflights during the first phases of Curiosity's mission on the surface of Mars. Then, ESA will be on standby to provide dedicated support at short notice, if requested by NASA, by relaying data from Curiosity to Earth.
'Supporting Curiosity is an excellent example of inter-agency cooperation, not only on Earth but also in deep space,' comments Manfred Warhaut, ESA's Head of Mission Operations. 'No one likes going to Mars on their own; it takes cooperation and partnership to reduce risk and boost scientific return on investment.'
Although the first images from the rover have very low resolution, better colour images are expected later in the week, when the rover's mast carrying its high-resolution cameras is fully deployed.
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