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Curiosity Lands On Mars: 10 Amazing Facts

NASA's Mars rover so far has performed flawlessly on one of the most delicate space missions yet. Here's a quick look at what makes Curiosity's work so amazing.

Curiosity's Mars Mission
Curiosity's Mars Mission
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
More that eight months after taking off from Cape Canaveral, NASA's Curiosity rover landed on Mars over the weekend to begin a two-year mission exploring and probing the Red Planet.

Curiosity already is sending back its first grainy black-and-white images of Mars, taken through the fish-eye lens of its hazard-avoidance cameras. And NASA on Monday released a photograph taken from its High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment on board the Mars Reconnaissance orbiter as the rover drifted downward, suspended by a parachute, on its last leg of the flight.

When Curiosity landed on Mars on Monday, Aug. 6, NASA administrator Charles Bolden referred to it as a "harrowing landing" and President Obama called it "an unprecedented feat of technology." Following are 10 facts that help explain why the occasion was so historic.

1. After 36 weeks in space, Curiosity touched down within one minute of schedule. NASA put the official landing time on Mars' surface as 1:32 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Aug. 6, one minute later than the time the space agency estimated months ago.

[Read about Microsoft's contribution to Mars' exploration. NASA, Microsoft Reveal Mars In Pictures.]

2. Curiosity landed on target, at the foot of a mountain three miles tall and 96 miles across inside the Gale Crater. NASA originally had set a landing target that was 12 miles wide by 16 miles long. But the space agency, citing increased confidence in its landing technology, in June reset its goal on a target area half that size.

3. NASA employed a relay system to receive confirmation of the landing. The direct line of communications was obstructed by the Earth's horizon as the landing craft approached Mars' surface. So, the Mars Odyssey orbiter, which had been repositioned a few weeks ago to better monitor the landing, relayed confirmation to the space agency's Deep Space Network antenna station in Canberra, Australia, which in turn relayed the news to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

4. The rover returned its first view of Mars, a wide-angle scene of rocky ground near the front of the rover, just minutes after landing (see photo below). At a 9 a.m. PDT press conference, scientists said their first surprise was "the rather uniform grain size of the coarser particles" seen in the image. When Curiosity deploys its mast later in the week, the cameras positioned there will begin to transmit high-resolution images in color. The rover has 17 cameras in all.

Curiosity Rover: first images
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
(click image for larger view)

5. Curiosity changed speed as it entered the final stage of its journey, speeding up, then slowing down. The spacecraft approached Mars at 8,000 miles per hour, then, when it hit the top of Mars' atmosphere, gravity pulled it in at about 13,200 mph. With its "sky crane" landing technique, the rover slowed to 1.7 mph. as it touched down.

6. Weather was good for Curiosity's descent, despite the threat of a dust storm."Mars is cooperating by providing good weather for landing," Ashwin Vasavada, the deputy project scientist for Curiosity, said as the rover approached its destination.

7. Curiosity, the size of an SUV, was lowered in a delicate sequence of events by thruster rockets, a 51-foot-wide parachute, and nylon cords.

8. At this point, scientists don't know where the lander--the jetpack that lowered Curiosity to the surface--crashed. As soon as the lander released the rover, rocket thrusters moved it far away from the science mission, to keep it from contaminating the rover's surroundings.

9. Curiosity carries 10 science instruments, some of them being used for the first time on a Mars mission, such as a laser-firing instrument that can check the elemental composition of rocks from a distance. It will use a drill and scoop at the end of a robotic arm to gather soil and rock interiors, then move the samples to its lab instruments.

10. NASA puts the cost of the Curiosity mission at $2.5 billion, which includes spacecraft development, science investigations, and the cost of launch and operations.

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User Rank: Apprentice
8/7/2012 | 7:05:37 PM
re: Curiosity Lands On Mars: 10 Amazing Facts
Amazing fact is that music was involved: "nylon chords" I wonder what nylon sounds like?
User Rank: Apprentice
8/7/2012 | 6:56:55 PM
re: Curiosity Lands On Mars: 10 Amazing Facts
In amazing fact #3, I believe it was the Mars horizon that obstructed direct communications at landing (the landing point was just barely over the Mars horizon from Earth's POV). That's what they were saying during the live coverage on the NASA cable channel, IIRC. A small nit-pick.
User Rank: Apprentice
8/7/2012 | 6:22:56 PM
re: Curiosity Lands On Mars: 10 Amazing Facts

The first Mars lander (Viking) also had a panoramic camera and a ground sample scoop. This lander is certainly more sophisticated, and a comparison will certainly come forth.
User Rank: Apprentice
8/7/2012 | 5:12:05 PM
re: Curiosity Lands On Mars: 10 Amazing Facts
"Curiosity, the size of an SUV..." should read "Curiosity, the size of a small SUV..." It's an amazing feat without the exaggeration.
User Rank: Apprentice
8/7/2012 | 3:19:49 PM
re: Curiosity Lands On Mars: 10 Amazing Facts
This is seriously a major breakthrough not just with the US but as a race of humans. It is funny how all they old star trek episodes and sci-fi movies that were made years ago are now actually being put to the test. There is a course offered at the University where I live and it is just that it compares sci-fi inventions to technology that currently exists. I am so excited to see exactly what the rover will collect and if the data will be useful in any way. At a cost of 2.5 billion I am sure that NASA is hoping for some useful results as well. I think that the amount of work from groups and individuals is really amazing and they things that can be achieved when great minds and ideas are collaborated effectively. Great Job and it is already a success in my book and a stepping stone for others to excel towards.

Paul Sprague
InformationWeek Contributor
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