The Latest Tourist On Mars


by Chris Bodenner

Just arrived:

Curiosity landed at 10:32 p.m. Aug. 5, PDT, (1:32 a.m. EDT Aug. 6) near the foot of a mountain three miles tall and 96 miles in diameter inside Gale Crater. During a nearly two-year prime mission, the rover will investigate whether the region ever offered conditions favorable for microbial life. "The Seven Minutes of Terror has turned into the Seven Minutes of Triumph," said NASA Associate Administrator for Science John Grunsfeld.

A visual explanation of that terrifying seven minutes – the time it takes for Curiosity to descend from Mars' atmosphere – here. A review of the high-tech gear:

Curiosity represents a scientific and engineering leap over the previous rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, and its nuclear-powered battery will allow it to rove day and night. Over the course of its two-year initial mission, the probe will climb up a 3-mile-high mountain in the middle of Gale Crater, poking, prodding, and drilling into the soil and rocks. … Possibly the coolest Curiosity instrument is the ChemCam, which uses a laser beam to shoot rocks (and maybe a Martian or two) in order to vaporize a small sample. A spectrograph will then analyze the vapor, determining the composition and chemistry of the rocks. Situated on Curiosity’s head, ChemCam can shoot up to 23 feet and should provide unprecedented detail about minerals on the Martian surface.

And those gadgets aren't cheap:

This flagship mission has been in the planning for more than 14 years. … The rover was subject to delays and cost overruns, eventually coming in at a total cost of $2.5 billion. During the press conference, NASA officials pointed out that this amount to roughly $7 per U.S. citizen. "This whole enterprise comes out to be the cost of a movie," said John Grotzinger, project scientist for the mission, "And that’s a movie I want to see."

Alyssa is already hoping for a sequel:

President Obama’s FY 2013 budget proposes cutting NASA’s planetary science budget from $1.5 billion to $1.2 billion and ending the U.S. partnership with the E.U. to send probes to Mars on two planned missions in 2016 and 2018—this year, the Jet Propulsion Lab’s open house was marked by a bake sale to call attention to the proposed cuts. What the scientists at [the Jet Propulsion Laboratory] did last night was a critical part of our future in space not simply because they did something extremely difficult that will advance our understanding of the planet that’s fascinated so many of us so deeply and for so long, but because they helped keep the dream alive at all…

(Photo: In this handout image provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech, one of the first images taken by NASA's Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars on the evening of August 5, 2012 PDT and transmitted to Spaceflight Operations Facility for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. By NASA/JPL-Caltech via Getty Images)