On August 6, 2012, NASA's Curiosity, a SUV-size rover, was lowered to the surface of Mars by wire cables. Before Curiosity, only one other space craft had successfully landed on Mars. That spacecraft, Mars 3 from the Soviet Union, fell silent just after landing in 1971.
Originally, Curiosity was supposed to launch in the fall of 2009 and cost $1.6 billion. Technical problems delayed the launch and NASA had to wait 26 months—the next time Earth lined up with Mars in the right position for the landing. In the meantime, the cost of the mission rose to $2.5 billion. Still, the mission was a huge achievement for NASA, which has seen criticism in recent years that the agency will never be what it once was. At a news conference, science adviser John P. Holdren said, "If anybody has been harboring doubts about the status of U.S. leadership in space, there's a 1 ton, automobile-size piece of American ingenuity, and it's sitting on the surface of Mars right now." President Obama praised the mission. In an official statement, he said, "It proves that even the longest odds are no match for our unique blend of ingenuity and determination."
Curiosity will spend the next two years studying the biology, chemistry, and geology of Mars. The rover's arm will take soil samples and analyze them onboard. Its chemical sniffers will examine the air on Mars for carbon compounds, which could provide signs of life. The rover also carries a long-distance laser to blast rocks up to seven miles away and the tools that will allow it to research the residue. Curiosity also has an X-ray spectrometer, which allows it to see what kinds of minerals are in the rocks as well as 17 cameras to take photos and send them back to Earth. Not bad for a project that costs less than seven dollars per U.S. citizen.
NASA first plans to make sure the rover is functioning properly by running a series of tests. By late September 2012, the rover will take soil samples. Drilling is planned for the mid-fall. The rover's research has been planned for the next two years, but since Curiosity's electricity is powered by plutonium, it could be operational and provide insight into Mars for decades to come.
|Space Exploration||The Dawning of the Space Age|