Touch-down: Mars

It is a momentous day on earth today.

Precisely on time and target, NASA’s Curiosity rover touched down safely on Mars Monday to begin an ambitious two-year trek through a mountainous crater that promises to reveal whether the red planet was ever hospitable to life.

The one ton, $2.5 billion Curiosity is the most scientifically equipped probe ever sent to another planet. And when the robot rover touches down, it will begin an intensive search for signs that Mars may have once hosted life.

The six-wheeled robot will sniff, scan and, for the first time, drill for geochemical signs that Mars once was habitable.

An artist’s rendering provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech, a “sky crane” lowers the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover onto the surface of Mars. After traveling 8 1/2 months and 352 million miles, Curiosity landed on Mars the night of Aug. 5, 2012

Almost immediately upon landing early Monday, the Curiosity craft transmitted to Earth a series of photographs showing its own wheels safely on the surface of Gale Crater near the equator of Mars.

“There is the wheel of the rover safely on the surface of Mars,” said one exuberant flight engineer from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., which is managing the $2.5 billion mission. “This is amazing.”

A six-wheeled, nuclear-powered geochemistry laboratory, Curiosity is the size of a small car — five times heavier and twice as long as previous Mars rovers. It is equipped with a suite of powerful instruments, including 17 cameras, lasers and a radiation detector. The rover can bore into rock and ingest samples, drawing them into an on-board chemistry lab and then sending the lab results home.

The primary mission is expected to last for at least one Martian year, or 687 Earth days.

Previous NASA missions have found evidence that Mars, now a cold and dry planet, had a warmer, watery past, so much so that scientists think of it as Earth’s space cousin. Every environment on Earth that contains liquid water also sustains life. Curiosity will search for the other building blocks of life, particularly carbon-carrying organic molecules.

(From news reports of the Los Angeles Times & the Wall Street Journal)

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