The perfect landing of the Mars rover Curiosity after an eight-month voyage was a triumph for NASA, a precision maneuver that required the 1-ton vehicle to slow from 13,000 mph to zero in what the space agency has called “seven minutes of terror.” NASA had struggled with landing heavy equipment, suffering losses of spacecraft sent to Mars in the past. This success, which proves the space agency can do it, is crucial if there are to be future manned missions to Mars.
As significant as the landing was, however, it’s only the beginning of the rover’s two-year mission. Curiosity has established full communications with Earth and has already started sending stunning pictures home, including a color panorama of Gale Crater, its landing spot.
Curiosity’s mission isn’t limited to photography. The rover, the most complex ever designed, will also analyze rocks and soil in a quest for the chemicals that serve as the building blocks of life. The rover will seek to determine whether there were ever conditions on Mars that could have allowed microbes to live.
That’s a fascinating prospect. If Curiosity does find something exciting, it could build interest in further exploration of the planet, perhaps even in sending astronauts there.
It remains to be seen whether the excitement over Curiosity will result in a renewed interest in space exploration. That has seemed to lag since the mothballing of the space shuttle and the recession. Space exploration is undeniably expensive — the Curiosity mission is a $2.5 billion project.
But Charles Elachi, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory that is managing the mission, pointed out that it’s about $7 per American citizen — the cost of a movie. John Grotzinger, the mission’s project scientist, replied, “That’s a movie I want to see.”
The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, Aug. 17