Justified cheering at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California as news of Curiosity's successful touchdown comes through. The release of tension was palpable.
NASA's outstanding achievement today of landing a car-sized lander on Mars will be a turning point in the exploration of the Red Planet.
Once again, NASA steals the imagination of the public with its inspiring Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity, its fourth rover to succeed in landing on the Red Planet. Once the graveyard of all Soviet landing attempts in the sixties and seventies and many of the US attempts too, I'm standing in awe of the US space agency's success rate for orbiting and landing on Mars over the last decade and a half.
Politicians were quick to share the spoils of publicity that have come with Curiosity's landing, President Obama for example hailing it as a proud event for America, it's space program and its people. Its just a shame that this is the same administration that is slashing NASA budgets and has ended the Space Shuttle program without a replacement, thus leaving American astronauts with Russian Soyuz spacecraft as the only way of transferring to the International Space Station (ISS). Anyway I digress and I totally agree with Obama's and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden's sentiments - this is an historic day for the US Space Program and well done JPL and NASA for a truly remarkable feat and team effort which demonstrates the capabilities of the human intellect at its very best.
Because make no mistake landing a vehicle intact on another world hundreds of millions of miles away is a gargantuan task. Just think, in Curiosity's case you're launching the vehicle the size and weight of a car from a moving object, the Earth, at another moving object, namely Mars via a booster propelled by a controlled explosion. Using Newton's Laws of Motion the trajectory of the vehicle has to be calculated bearing in mind its velocity (and changes in velocity or delta V), the position of Mars in nine months time when the spacecraft is ready for landing and external factors such as the effect of the solar wind.
The vehicle has has survived the dangerous blast off from Earth, survived nine months of cosmic and solar radiation at temperatures below -200 'C only to face its ultimate challenge: to decelerate from 30,000 mph whilst enduring the huge heat from friction forces at it descends to the surface of a substantial planet with strong gravity and a tenuous atmosphere - enough of an atmosphere to require the spacecraft to have a substantial heat shield, but barely enough to assist in the braking on descent. And that's not all, the lander weighs one ton and requires a powered descent with a newly concocted and untried space crane mechanism to provide a soft landing to ensure there's no damage to all of the scientific equipment on board.
And that's just the journey Mars. Decades of work by thousands of engineers, technicians, scientists and contractors have gone into the compromise of what the spacecraft contains in terms of experiments and hardware. And just like the landing itself, hundreds of thousands of lines of computer code and its related equipment have to work perfectly, in the right order and on time. Full details and specification of the MSL Curiosity rover can be found on this excellent NASA help sheet here.
Curiosity's landing on Mars today is a truly awesome achievement and a turning point of mankind's exploration of the Red Planet. Well done the American unmanned space program!