The largest and most advanced spacecraft ever, Curiosity, made an extraordinary landing on the surface of Mars Wednesday in hopes of finding signs of life.
The $2.5 Billion mission involved over 10 years of planning and the work of over 5,000 people in order to successful. The project was so large that NASA outsourced the mission management to Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
At 10:32 p.m. Al Chen, a JLP engineer reported “Touchdown confirmed” to thousands of nervous onlookers. Inside the mission control, engineers were visibly anxious during the touchdown and many leapt to their feet and bounced for joy after Chen’s words rang out.
Chen told reporters the Curiosity landed in a “nice flat place,” and the spacecraft was able to send a few pictures of its successful landing. One image showed the Curiosity’s wheels resting comfortably on the floor of an ancient crater.
The spacecraft is expected to set a new precedent for the future of deep space science exploration, as the mission is not only designed to find if Mars was once habitable, but paving the way for the next critical steps in exploration and possible colonization. The vehicle is described by scientists as full-fledged geochemistry lab on wheels able to vaporize rocks with a laser, take air samples, and ingest dirt, then send the samples back to Earth.
The mission was different than past missions, which sent much smaller rovers onto the surface of Mars, as it required a much more difficult and elaborate plan to successfully land the much heavier one ton Curiosity. Thousands of carefully calibrated and experimental devices had to work with precise timing for the spacecraft to survive.
NASA and JPL referred to the difficult landing as “seven minutes of terror,” as it required the largest supersonic parachute ever deployed in space, a sky crane, and 76 pyrotechnic explosions. If any of these methods had failed the landing would not have been successful according to Adam Stelzner, the leader of the landing team.