Curiosity, a nuclear-powered Mars rover (see image above, click to enlarge), was launched from Earth on November 26, 2011. In the early hours this morning, Curiosity "transformed from its stowed flight configuration to a landing configuration while the MSL spacecraft simultaneously lowered it with a 20 m (66 ft) tether from the 'sky crane' system to a soft landing ~ wheels down ~ on the surface of Mars."
It is the most ambitious and daunting rover platform ever attempted. Curiosity is just shy of 10 feet long, and weights 2000 lb. The six-wheeled research vehicle can roll over obstacles up to 30 inches in height, and reach terrain-traverse speeds of 100-300 feet per hour. It carries an array of sophisticated cameras, scientific instruments, and sampling devices. The rover's assigned goals are to ~
- determine whether Mars could ever have supported life
- study the climate of Mars
- study the geology of Mars
- plan for a human mission to Mars
The sheer accomplishment of launching a one-ton payload, traversing over 352 million miles of space, anticipating and intercepting the position of Mars in its orbit, then safely lowering such a heavy object laden with delicate scientific equipment successfully to the planet surface, is a marvel.
You will find videos of the Curiosity mission embedded within this Washington Post article, and a wonderful description and animation of the rover in a segment from last Friday's PBS Newshour. And here is an animation of the complex landing, narrated by a JPL scientist. The landing is a sterling achievement for NASA, and the discoveries have just begun. On a personal note, while I enjoy the somewhat dramatic names assigned to sea and space craft (Enterprise, Pioneer, Voyager, Discovery, et al.), I enjoy even more the eloquent emotion implied in the name Curiosity. We are all newborns in a universe of wonders.