Today is Curiosity Day. On August 5, 2012, NASA’s Mars Rover Curiosity landed on the red planet after a procedure so complicated its engineers dubbed it Seven Minutes of Terror.
On November 26, 2011, an unmanned spacecraft carrying the 1,982-pound SUV-sized rover launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. After traveling 354 million miles, it entered Mars’ thin atmosphere, its heat shield reaching 1,600 degrees as the craft slowed from 13,000 to 1,000 mph. A supersonic parachute deployed to decrease the speed further, to 200 mph.
The shield was jettisoned to allow the ship’s radar to “see” the surface. Rockets fired to slow the rate of descent to several feet per second. They couldn’t get too close to the surface because of the dust cloud they would create, potentially damaging Curiosity’s sensitive equipment.
To solve this problem, engineers designed a carrier they called a “sky crane,” which used the rockets to hover at a safe height while gently lowering the rover the rest of the way via cable. (Another nickname: “rover on a rope.”) Once it was deposited on the ground, the carrier severed the tether and veered away, crashing into the surface several hundred yards away.
The process from atmospheric entry to touchdown took seven minutes. There was a 13.8-minute delay receiving signals at Mission Control; there could be no intervention from Earth, so there was no margin for error. The outcome had already occurred. Everyone involved with the $2.5 billion project waited helplessly until the signal reached them: Curiosity had made it.
The rover is equipped with a small nuclear power plant designed to generate electricity for 14 years. Since landing, its instruments have discovered carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur in rock, methane in the atmosphere and the remains of an ancient streambed. All are indicators that life may have existed there in the past.
It has also sent back some great selfies like this one combining multiple images taken with the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera at the end of its robotic arm. ( See how here.)
Another of the rover’s instruments is the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM), which utilizes vibrating plates to move soil samples through the chemistry module. On August 5, 2012, engineers directed them to produce musical notes and “sing” Happy Birthday to Curiosity.
We can’t help but be inspired by people with the vision, ingenuity and gumption to take on the challenge of the seemingly impossible and not give up until they achieve it. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory uses the phrase “Dare Mighty Things” at the end of its Seven Minutes video. It’s taken from a speech by President Theodore Roosevelt:
Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.
If we work together, is there anything humanity can’t do?