Skip to main content

Rover Curiosity lands safely on Mars

Water-ice clouds, polar ice and other geographic features can be seen in this full-disk image of Mars from 2011. NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover touched down on the planet on August 6, 2012. Take a look at stunning photographs of Mars over the years. <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2012/08/14/tech/gallery/mars-curiosity-rover/index.html' target='_blank'>Check out images from the Mars rover Curiosity</a>. Water-ice clouds, polar ice and other geographic features can be seen in this full-disk image of Mars from 2011. NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover touched down on the planet on August 6, 2012. Take a look at stunning photographs of Mars over the years. Check out images from the Mars rover Curiosity.
HIDE CAPTION
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
Exploring Mars
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The dramatic landing of the SUV-sized rover is set for 1:31 a.m. ET Monday
  • This landing process involves a sky crane and the world's largest supersonic parachute
  • Curiosity's first stop slated to be Gale Crater, which may have once contained a lake
  • The vehicle will be controlled from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory

(CNN) -- Humanity's curiosity about Mars has led to an exciting event: the dramatic landing of an SUV-sized rover, set for 1:31 a.m. ET Monday.

NASA's $2.5 billion rover, Curiosity, will make its dramatic entrance into Martian territory in a spectacle popularly known as the "seven minutes of terror." This jaw-dropping landing process, involving a sky crane and the world's largest supersonic parachute, allows the spacecraft carrying Curiosity to target the landing area that scientists have meticulously chosen.

The spacecraft is "healthy and right on course," according to the latest update from NASA. Curiosity has been traveling away from Earth since November 26.

The vehicle, which will be controlled from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has a full suite of sophisticated tools for exploring Mars. They include 17 cameras, a laser that can survey the composition of rocks from a distance and instruments that can analyze samples from soil or rocks.

Meet a rover driver: His car is on Mars

If all goes according to plan, Curiosity's first stop will be Gale Crater, which may have once contained a lake. After at least a year, the rover will arrive at Mount Sharp, in the center of the crater. The rover will drive up the mountain examining layers of sediment. This process is like looking at a historical record because each layer represents an era of the planet's history, scientists say.

Mars, NASA's most ambitious mission
Mars in pop culture
The Number: "Curiosity" Mars landing
Bill Nye and the 'PB&J' of space

The phenomenon of sedimentary layers is remarkably similar to what is seen on Earth, in California's Death Valley or in Montana's Glacier National Park, says John Grotzinger, chief scientist of the Mars Science Laboratory mission.

Rocks and minerals found on Earth are different than on Mars, but the idea of a mountain made of layers is familiar to scientists. Unlike on Earth, however, Mars has no plate tectonics, so the Martian layers are flat and not disrupted as they would be on Earth. That also means that Mount Sharp was formed in a different way than how mountains are created on Earth -- no one knows how.

Images: Exploring Mars

In these layers, scientists are looking for organic molecules, which are necessary to create life. But even if Curiosity finds them, that's not proof that life existed -- after all, these molecules are found in bus exhaust and meteorites, too, says Steve Squyres, part of the Mars Science Laboratory science team.

If there aren't any organics, that may suggest there's something on the planet destroying these molecules, says James Wray, assistant professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology and collaborator on the Curiosity science team. But if Curiosity detects them, Wray said, that might help scientists move from asking, "Was Mars ever habitable?" to "Did Mars actually host life?"

"A successful landing will grant a huge breath of relief to the entire Mars science community tonight," Wray said in an e-mail. "And it will certainly keep NASA at the forefront of Mars exploration for at least the next few years."

Liquid water is not something scientists expect to be apparent on Mars because the planet is so cold and dry, Squyres said. If the planet does harbor liquid water today, it would have to be deep below the surface, perhaps peeking out in a few special places, but not likely to be seen by Curiosity, Squyres said.

Rover to search for clues to life on Mars

It's hard to know how long ago liquid water would have been there because there's no mechanism to date the rocks that rovers find on Mars, Squyres said.

Evidence from the spacecraft NASA has sent to Mars so far suggests that the "warm and wet" period on Mars lasted for the first billion years of the planet's history.

"In order to create life, you need both the right environmental conditions -- which includes liquid water -- and you need the building blocks from which life is built, which includes organics," Squyres said. The Mars Science Laboratory is a precursor mission to sharper technology that could do life detection, Grotzinger said.

There aren't specific molecules that scientists are looking for with Curiosity. The attitude is: "Let's go to an interesting place with good tools and find out what's there," Squyres said.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory was swarming with media this past week as scientists and journalists prepared for signs of the rover's landing. Squyres and a colleague told each other Thursday they were both feeling "full of hope and optimism."

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory's confirmed list of "VIP" guests included celebrities Alex Trebek, Chuck Lorre, Wil Wheaton, Nichelle Nichols, Bill Prady and June Lockhart. But the excitement spread far beyond NASA locations: Parties in honor of the Mars rover landing were scheduled around the world.

About 300 people passed through the Atlanta Science Tavern landing party at Georgia Institute of Technology, organizer Marc Merlin said. The event included several presentations about planetary science, during which several attendees had to sit on the floor or stand in order to fit in the lecture room. The event switched to "party" mode around midnight, giving way to loud chatter about space exploration among science enthusiasts and researchers.

Wray delivered a presentation about the history of Mars exploration. Before Curiosity, humans have landed spacecraft on the equivalent of parking lots -- relatively safe, flat places on Mars, he said. By comparison, "tonight we're landing in the Grand Canyon," he said.

Interest was so great in the event that Merlin stopped promoting it a few days before. The possibility of life elsewhere reaches beyond people interested in science, he said, and Curiosity points towards a potential revolution.

"That's why people are here tonight: They want to be part of history," Merlin said.

What do you think about the Mars mission? Go to iReport

Although a lot of science went into this landing process, superstition on landing night can't hurt.

It's traditional to open up cans of peanuts and pass them around to the team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory responsible for overseeing the landing of the rover, said David Oh, lead flight director for the mission, earlier this week.

"It's always been a lucky charm for us, and missions have always seemed to work out better when we had the peanuts there," Oh said. "For landing this, I'll take all the great engineering we have, and all the luck you can give us, too."

Sunday also happens to be the 82nd birthday of former NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong. It's hoped the birthday will be auspicious for the landing, NASA's John Grunsfeld said in a news conference.

Curiosity is supposed to last for two years on Mars, but it may operate longer -- after all, Spirit and Opportunity, which arrived on Mars in 2004, were each only supposed to last 90 Martian days. Spirit stopped communicating with NASA in 2010 after getting stuck in sand, and Opportunity is still going.

"You take what Mars gives you," said Squyres, also the lead scientist on the Mars Exploration Rover Mission, which includes Spirit and Opportunity. "If we knew what we were going to find, it wouldn't be this much fun."

Follow @CNNLightYears on Twitter

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Space
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Seems NASA's fascination with the moon is in the past. It's focused on something far more menacing: incoming asteroids
July 15, 2014 -- Updated 0356 GMT (1156 HKT)
Scientists looking for signs of life in the universe -- as well as another planet like our own -- are a lot closer to their goal than people realize.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Back in July 1969, I stood on the talcum-like lunar dust just a few feet from our home away from home, Eagle, the lunar module that transported Neil Armstrong and me to the bleak, crater-pocked moonscape.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
solar flare july 2014
From Earth, the sun appears as a constant circle of light, but when viewed in space a brilliant display of motion is revealed.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
The full moons of this summer -- July 12, August 10 and September 9 -- are supermoons, as NASA calls them.
June 29, 2014 -- Updated 1551 GMT (2351 HKT)
If you think you saw a flying saucer over Hawaii, you might not be crazy -- except what you saw didn't come from outer space, though that may be its ultimate destination.
June 27, 2014 -- Updated 0147 GMT (0947 HKT)
The U.S. space shuttle program retired in 2011, leaving American astronauts to hitchhike into orbit. But after three long years, NASA's successor is almost ready to make an entrance.
June 13, 2014 -- Updated 1421 GMT (2221 HKT)
When I first poked my head inside Virgin Galactic's newest spaceship, I felt a little like I was getting a front-row seat to space history.
June 10, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
The sun is putting on a fireworks show again.
June 24, 2014 -- Updated 2302 GMT (0702 HKT)
A year is a very long time on Mars -- 687 days. NASA's Curiosity rover can attest that it's enough time for some unexpected life changes.
May 8, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
It's hard to describe billions of years of cosmic history. But scientists have used a code to create a model of how the universe as we know it today might have evolved.
May 2, 2014 -- Updated 1800 GMT (0200 HKT)
At least one corner of the solar system may be serving up an ice-and-water sandwich, with the possibility of life on the rocks.
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1503 GMT (2303 HKT)
Planetary nebula Abell 33 has taken on romantic proportions.
April 8, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
You can't see it happening on Earth, but space itself is stretching. Ever since the Big Bang happened 13.8 billion years ago, the universe has been getting bigger.
March 26, 2014 -- Updated 2059 GMT (0459 HKT)
Scientists have added another celestial body to the short list of objects in our solar system that have rings around them.
March 27, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Astronomers have discovered a dwarf planet that's even farther away than Pluto.
February 28, 2014 -- Updated 1259 GMT (2059 HKT)
Our galactic neighborhood just got a lot bigger. NASA announced the discovery of 715 new planets.
March 18, 2014 -- Updated 1437 GMT (2237 HKT)
Scientists have made a breakthrough in understanding how our world as we know it came to be.
February 25, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
From a sheep ranch in Western Australia comes the oldest slice of Earth we know.
February 19, 2014 -- Updated 1902 GMT (0302 HKT)
Cassiopeia A was a star more than eight times the mass of our sun before it exploded in the cataclysmic, fiery death astronomers call a supernova.
February 10, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Researchers have found clues that water could be flowing in the present, at least during warm seasons.
February 15, 2014 -- Updated 1602 GMT (0002 HKT)
The "jelly doughnut" rock that seemed to appear out of nowhere on Mars last month did not fall out of an extraterrestrial pastry box.
February 7, 2014 -- Updated 0356 GMT (1156 HKT)
It's a dot in the sky.
February 13, 2014 -- Updated 0744 GMT (1544 HKT)
Reports of Jade Rabbit's demise may have been premature.
January 16, 2014 -- Updated 1358 GMT (2158 HKT)
It's rare for astronomers to spot a planet in a star cluster. That's partly why a cluster called Messier 67 is so special: We now know that it has three planets orbiting stars.
ADVERTISEMENT