In a much anticipated event, the most advanced Mars rover touched down on the red planet's surface on Sunday at 10:32 PM PST, one minute behind schedule and only 2.27 miles from the targeted location inside the Gale Crater. It was a landing of stunning precision, given the fact that the signal sent by the equipment takes 14 minutes to reach Earth, which means that, by the time NASA and the member of the Jet Propulsion Lab received confirmation of the beginning of the seven-minute landing process, Curiosity had successfully landed seven minutes before that and began sending data and first images, which reached NASA at 10:34 PM PST.
"The Seven Minutes of Terror has turned into the Seven Minutes of Triumph," said NASA Associate Administrator for Science John Grunsfeld in a prepared statement. "My immense joy in the success of this mission is matched only by overwhelming pride I feel for the women and men of the mission's team."
In fact, it was a much needed success for cash-strapped NASA, which is celebrating an immense success and gain in prestige. President Barack Obama previously set the goal for humans to be sent to Mars by 2030 and much more advanced landing of Curiosity, which included several phases of descent and slowdowns of the capsule and its car-sized rover, lend confidence that this goal is realistic and achievable.
At this time, NASA is evaluating Curiosity's instruments and is analyzing the landing site. There are ten instruments on board that have 15 times the mass of the instruments of the payload previously carried by the now immobile Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which landed on January 4 and January 25, 2004. Curiosity is about twice as long and five times as massive as the Spirit and Opportunity Mars exploration rovers. It weighs 1,982 lbs and is 9.8 ft in length. It can pass obstacles up to 30 inches in height and will travel at an anticipated average speed of 98 ft per hour.
Its power is derived from a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), similar to the one used by the Viking 1 and Viking 2 Mars landers in 1976. The power output is 125 watts of electrical power extracted from about 2000 watts of thermal power, which will gradually decrease as the plutonium-238 decays over time. Scientists estimate that there will be about 100 watts of electrical power left in about 14 years. Curiosity can generate about 2.5 kWh per day, in comparison to only 0.6 kWh the smaller Spirit and Opportunity had available.