The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Curiosity rover landed safely on Mars, after a 352 million-mile journey and harrowing plunge through the planet’s atmosphere dubbed “7 Minutes of Terror.”
The vehicle, loaded with the most-sophisticated instruments ever used off Earth, touched down at around 1:31 a.m. New York time. Scientists developed the $2.5 billion mission to help determine whether Mars has an environment that can support life.
Curiosity landed at a site called Gale Crater, at the foot of a 3.4 mile (5.5 kilometer) high mountain. The crater spans 96 miles, an area about the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, according to NASA. Because of its low elevation, water on Mars would likely have pooled in the crater. Orbiting probes suggest there may be water-related clay and minerals. Curiosity is loaded with equipment to allow analysis of air, rock and soil samples.
NASA dubbed the period from entry to touchdown the “7 Minutes of Terror” in a video describing the event. The spacecraft entered the atmosphere and decelerated quickly, deploying a parachute. It then separated into parts, one of which was a hover craft with rockets.
The craft lowered Curiosity to the ground, using a “sky crane,” and then flew away. The new system replaced airbags used in previous missions to lessen ground impact because Curiosity was too heavy to use them.
A 14-minute communication lag exists between the vehicle and the control center 154 million miles away on Earth, where scientists monitored transmissions from the craft.
The Mars Science Laboratory, the formal name of the mission deploying the Curiosity rover, was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida on Nov. 26, 2011. After Curiosity, the only planned U.S. mission to Mars is an atmospheric orbiter meant to launch next year.
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