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'Miracle of engineering' allows scientists views of Mars

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
August 7th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Hailed as a "miracle of engineering," NASA scientists hailed the Mars rover Curiosity's smooth descent as a milestone of modern technology. Researchers are now scanning early images of a Martian crater that may hold clues about theoretical life on the Red Planet.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The expedition was fraught with risks, one that could have dashed many years of meticulous scientific research. "We trained ourselves for eight years to think the worst all the time," Curiosity lead engineer Miguel San Martin said. "You can never turn that off."

NASA engineers now say the landing stands as the most challenging and elaborate achievement in the history of robotic spaceflight. The landing opens the door to a new era in planetary exploration. President Barack Obama hailed the accomplishment as an historic "point of national pride."

The landing's success was a major milestone for a U.S. space agency beset by budget cuts and the recent cancellation of its space shuttle program.

Encased in a capsule-like protective shell, the nuclear-powered Curiosity rover weathered an eight-month voyage as it streaked into the thin Martian atmosphere at 13,200 miles-per-hour, or 17 times the speed of sound.

The capsule's "guided entry" system used jet thrusters to steer the craft as it fell, making small course corrections and burning off most of its downward speed. About the size of a small sports car, the rover landed as planned at the bottom of a vast, ancient impact bowl called Gale Crater, and near a towering mound of layered rock called Mount Sharp, which rises from the floor of the basin. The descent, dubbed by some as "seven minutes of terror," proved to be unfounded.

From an orbital perch 211 miles away, NASA's sharp-eyed Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took a picture of Curiosity gracefully riding beneath its massive parachute en route to Gale Crater, located near the planet's equator in its southern hemisphere.

Flight controllers at JPL received the equivalent of a text message from Curiosity that its journey of 352 million miles had ended successfully.

The rover transmitted a picture seven minutes later, showing one of Curiosity's wheels on the planet's gravel-strewn surface.

"When you see a picture of the surface of the planet with the spacecraft on it, that is the miracle of engineering," lead scientist John Grotzinger told journalists.

With the late-afternoon sun slipping behind the crater's rim, Curiosity relayed six more sample pictures and the results of initial health checks of some of its 10 scientific instruments before shutting down for the Martian night.

Curiosity touched down about 6.2 miles from the foot of Mount Sharp, a monstrous formation of sedimentary rock that rises like a stack of cards three miles from the floor of Gale Crater.

"The surface mission of Curiosity has now begun," mission manager Mike Watkins said.

"We built this rover not just to be launched or not just to land on Mars, but to actually drive on Mars and execute a very complex and beautiful science mission."

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