The fact that the Mars rover "Curiosity" didn’t crash during its 7-minute landing sequence Sunday night PDT is, in itself, huge.
The agency’s largest and most complex rover so far landed safely on the red planet and will spend the next two years investigating it for signs of microbial life.
The flawless, albeit complicated, landing was confirmed Sunday at 10:32 p.m. PDT after Curiosity set down near the foot of a mountain three miles tall inside Mars’ 96-mile-wide Gale Crater.
How is the Rover Equipped to Investigate Mars?
Curiosity is equipped with 10 science instruments that, combined, have a total mass 15 times larger than science payloads on the previous Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Some of the high-tech apparatuses are the first of their kind on Mars, such as a tool that can check the elemental composition of rocks by firing a vaporizing laser at them from a distance.
Curiosity’s robotic arm will drill into, scoop, sieve, parcel out, and analyze samples of the planet’s surface. NASA says its orbital observations have identified clay and sulfate minerals in the lower layers, indicating the planet, at one time, had a wet history.
The rover’s power source is a thermonuclear electric generator that produces electricity from the heat of plutonium-238’s radioactive decay. Longer-living and more reliable than solar power, the thermonuclear generator can provide Curiosity with power for at least a full year on Mars—687 days on Earth—and pumps warm fluids through the rover to keep it at the right operating temperatures.
What Is Curiosity Seeing?
It took communication signals 14 minutes after landing to reach Earth from Mars via a relay from NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter to the Canberra, Australia, antenna station of NASA's Deep Space Network.
Two minutes later, the first photo from Curiosity popped onto video screens at the California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., where the NASA mission is managed.
The grainy, low-resolution image showed one of the rover’s wheels and the Martian horizon. A few minutes later the Curiosity began to transmit higher-resolution images back to Earth.
"Curiosity's landing site is beginning to come into focus," said John Grotzinger, project manager of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, in an announcement touting a black-and-white, 512-pixel by 512-pixel image, taken by Curiosity's rear-left Hazcam two hours after Curiosity’s landing.
"In the image, we are looking to the northwest. What you see on the horizon is the rim of Gale Crater. In the foreground, you can see a gravel field.
The question is: where does this gravel come from? It is the first of what will be many scientific questions to come from our new home on Mars."
In a news conference Monday, engineers and scientists heading the mission showed off some of the images coming in from Curiosity, as well as those from the HiRISE camera onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which was able to capture a photo of Curiosity parachuting toward the surface of Mars.
What’s Next for the Rover?
In its first week on Mars, Curiosity will deploy its main antenna, raise a mast outfitted with cameras, the rock-vaporizing laser and other tools, and take its first panoramic photo.
But now that the incredible hurdle of landing on Mars is out of the way, NASA isn’t rushing the mission Scientists will initially spend weeks inspecting the Curiosity as well as mapping out its future routes before setting off on the first drive. The rover won’t scoop its first sample of soil until at least mid-September, and it will be October or November before it first drills into rock.
Why Is the Landing a Big Deal?
The one-ton rover and its spacecraft plummeted into the Martian atmosphere hustling at a blistering 13,000 mph.
Withstanding 65,000 lbs. of force, its huge supersonic parachute slowed Curiosity’s decent to about 200 mph, after which the spacecraft deployed a kind of hovercraft with retrorockets that further slowed Curiosity to about 0.75 meters per second and gently lowered it down to the planet’s surface via 25-foot-long cables.
After waiting 1.5 seconds to make sure the rover was on the ground, the “sky-crane” system activated small explosives on the cables to set the spacecraft free from the rover so it could fly away for a crash landing.
How Can I Keep Tabs on What’s Happening on Mars?
NASA has set up plenty of ways for people to keep track of the Curiosity.
NASA TV is a fantastic resource for images, videos, blogs, podcasts and more. It's also the place where you can watch upcoming press conferences and news updates—the next ones are scheduled for 4 p.m. PDT Aug. 6 and 10 a.m. PDT on Aug. 7 and on Aug. 8.