Mars Rover Curiosity Makes Safe Landing on Red Planet

This article was originally published on August 5, 2012 in the Salt Lake Tribune. Reprinted with permission from Sheena McFarland & the Salt Lake Tribune

Photo Credit: NASA/JPL

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Give the landing a 10.

NASA's Curiosity rover, the largest-ever rover launched, safely made its way to the surface of the red planet — a maneuver trickier than sticking any gymnastics landing seen in the London Olympics.

 

The anticipation and excitement were palpable as more than 250 people gathered at the University of Utah to watch the broadcast from inside NASA's mission control as scientists, and the world, heard the step-by-step progress of Curiosity's landing. The audience erupted in shouts and applause when NASA received confirmation of the 11:31 p.m. landing.

Patrick Wiggins, NASA solar system ambassador to Utah, said he was "giddy" all night.

"It just went so well, so well. We're on Mars!" he said as tears of joy gathered in his eyes. "The insane descent module worked."

Images nearly instantly began streaming in from the $2.5 billion machine, also called the Mars Science Laboratory. It is equipped with sensors, cameras and a robotic arm as it searches for signs of past microbial life on Mars. For the past 36 weeks, it has traveled 352 million miles, but the most difficult part of the trip was the landing.

Previous rovers have been dropped onto the planet in essentially an oversized air bag, but the Mini Cooper-sized Curiosity weighs nearly a ton — too heavy to use the method.

Instead, scientists programmed the autopilot to slow itself down from 13,000 mph to a crawl using heat shields, a massive parachute and a complicated rocket-propelled backpack, called Sky Crane, that used nylon ropes to lower the rover into a crater next to a nearly four-mile-high mountain.

Several parents brought their children to the event.

Bonnie Larson, of Sandy, casually mentioned the event to her 10-year-old son, Henry, Sunday evening, "and he was in the car before I could say 'Whoa!' " She filled her coffee mug and drove her son, who competes to make and program robots as part of First Lego League, to the event.

"This is a good lesson because it's just like in Lego league — this shows these kids there are going to be moments of stress and you're not going to know if it works until it's over," Larson said.

David Gonzalez drove his two children, Clive, 7, and Zion, 10, from Provo to the U. to watch the event. He homeschools his children and said he has prioritized once-in-a-lifetime events such as this one.

"Kids respond really well to exploration," he said. "This is a defining moment in their lives of the technological advances being made."

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