Mars has long been the subject of Earth-bound fascination. It is the closest planet to Earth, and in many ways is very Earth-like. Despite the
attention, it was only in the 1920s that a Martian atmosphere was proven to exist, and even more recently that scientists concluded that water was once abundant.
Mars is a voracious consumer of spacecraft: of 17 attempts to land man-made objects on the surface (not counting those that failed en route), only eight can be considered successful. The rest variously failed the orbital insert, crashed into the surface, or landed but never transmitted.
So it was with some trepidation that NASA approved a plan to land a Flagship-level mission on the planet’s surface, and roll around for two years. The final approval was delayed until 2004, when it became clear that two small rovers,
Opportunity and Spirit, had reached the planet and were operating (Opportunity continues its mission, well past the expiry date).
Upon the Curiosity rover are mounted instruments that originate from all over the globe: a drill, a laser, a variety of spectrometers, cameras, particle detectors, even a small oven to burn and analyse samples. Thus far, all have functioned more or less according to plan, with only minor hiccups – a success by all teams.
Of special note is the “skycrane” landing method, which has dramatically increased the possible operational mass and thus immediately become the standard for putting large payloads on the planet. Though well-designed and built, the use of the complex and untested design represented a great technical and political leap of faith in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s engineering capabilities.
The skycrane entailed mounting Curiosity to essentially a jetpack structure, encapsulated in a heat shield. Once inside the Martian atmosphere, the heat shield is discarded and the vehicle descends by parachute. When close to the surface the parachute disconnects and the rocket thrusters take over, bringing the assembly to a hover just above the Martian surface. As the jetpack hovers, it lowers the rover gently down, and upon confirmed landing, cuts the cable and flies safely away. It would be a feat difficult to accomplish in Earth’s well-understood atmosphere, to say nothing of volatile Mars. And yet it worked exactly as planned.
After its launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on 26 November 2011, on an Atlas 541, the spacecraft remained safely in transit as the final launch site was decided. The team eventually settled on a shallow depression in the Gale
Crater, which contains Aeolis Mons (Mount Sharp) and a number of other geologically
Although Curiosity’s data is new and incomplete, and scientific analysis takes time, some initial results from the mission have already been released, providing significant evidence that plentiful water once flowed on Mars.
MSL demonstrated NASA’s continuing mastery of space beyond low Earth orbit at a time when it was sorely needed. Despite its successes, NASA’s budget is under constant pressure from people who question its purpose. For once, messages of congratulations poured in to NASA’s inbox.
Curiosity inspired the public in a way that no mission has since the first flights of the Space Shuttle, making front-page news all over the world and capturing the attention of even the most Earth-bound people. The team in the JPL control room held their breaths with the engineers and scientists during the landing and celebrated with them when the word finally arrived. To this day people talk about “Mohawk Guy,” the pacing team lead and ageing scientists tearing up with joy.
Curiosity ranks with such iconic craft as the Voyager flights beyond the Solar System, Hubble Space Telescope’s pictures of the great universe beyond, and the invaluable data from the Viking landers. Whatever course humanity charts in outer space, Mars will figure prominently, and it will be because of Curiosity’s achievements that the future is made possible. Already another Mars rover, virtually identical in basic form to Curiosity, is planned for launch in the 2020 timeframe, carrying new instruments to a different part of the planet.
For successfully landing and operating a rover of unprecedented capabilities on the surface of Mars, the team behind NASA’s Curiosity rover wins Flightglobal’s Innovator of the Year award for 2013.