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Touchdown! Daring landing on Red Planet ends successfully

Curiosity rover lands safely on Mars
August 06, 2012

In the late hours of Aug. 5, NASA and space enthusiasts around the world celebrated the successful landing of NASA’s most advanced Mars rover, Curiosity. It was an event that was watched closely by millions of people in the United States and around the world.

Known officially as the Mars Science Laboratory, the one-ton, Mini Cooper-size rover set down onto Mars to end a nearly eight-month flight and begin a two-year investigation. Several professors and researchers from ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, as well as alumni, are involved in the mission.

“What an incredible and emotional experience, watching along with hundreds of engineers, scientists and students as the wild 'sky crane' landing system for Curiosity literally unfolded in front of our eyes … flawlessly,” said ASU professor Jim Bell, who watched the excitement from JPL, and is a member of the teams operating the rover’s cameras Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) and MastCam.

In addition to Bell, three other ASU professors are involved with instruments on the mission. Professor Meenakshi Wadhwa is a co-investigator with the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, essentially an analytical chemistry system. Amy McAdam, an alumnus, is also working on SAM. Professor Jack Farmer is a science team member for a different instrument, CheMin, designed to examine the chemical and mineralogical properties of rocks and soils. And professor Alberto Behar is an investigation scientist for the Russian Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons instrument.

Curiosity’s MAHLI also has ties to ASU. MAHLI is mounted on its robotic arm and will make close-up images of Mars rocks to help determine past environmental conditions. Kenneth Edgett, an ASU alumnus, is the principal investigator on the MAHLI team. MAHLI comes from Malin Space Science Systems, a company started and operated by former ASU geological sciences professor Malin. Malin is also the principal investigator for two other MSL cameras, MARDI and Mastcam. ASU’s Bell is an important player regarding the targeting and interpretation of images recovered from all of these camera systems.

A time to celebrate

To mark the occasion, numerous “Mars landing parties” were planned, including one at ASU.

A standing-room-only crowd estimated at more than 150 people jammed the auditorium at ASU’s Mars Space Flight Facility to watch as Curiosity touched down in Gale Crater on the Red Planet. When mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory announced the landing, the crowd let out a huge roar of delight.

“The tension in the room was almost palpable. I’m pretty sure everyone was feeling slightly nervous because of how radical the 'sky crane' idea was, and how badly we all wanted it to go off without a hitch,” said Benjamin Stinnett, a sophomore majoring in Earth and Space Exploration (Systems Design). “At every sign of good news from mission control at the Jet Propulsion Lab, the entire auditorium erupted into cheering. The news of a safe landing and the first pictures to come back sent a rush of euphoria over the entire crowd. It was a truly momentous occasion.”

The spacecraft that carried Curiosity succeeded in every step of the most complex landing ever attempted on Mars. Instead of the familiar airbag landing systems of the past Mars missions, an innovative sky crane touchdown system was used to softly land the massive rover.

“I can’t imagine the impact Curiosity’s successful landing and mission will have on the public, a restoration of faith in NASA’s programs since the retirement of the shuttle program. It inspires me to continue on my path to a career in space exploration,” said Pye Pye Khin Zaw, a senior in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. “Seconds after the landing, I whispered to my boyfriend that I wished to someday soon be one of the people in Mission Control, overjoyed and celebrating the success of a mission I dedicated years to, and making a difference in the world. It’s a nice goal to strive toward and one to guide me through the tougher times I face in classes or projects.”

“This was a fantastic achievement, and one that opens an exciting new chapter in Mars exploration,” said Philip Christensen, director of the Mars Space Flight Facility, part of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. He is also principal investigator for the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS), a multi-band camera on NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter. Odyssey is the spacecraft which relayed the landing data directly to Earth as it was happening.

“Over the coming days, weeks and months, we are going to take the rover – and the public – on an incredible voyage through Martian history as we drive through the spectacular layered rocks of Gale crater," Bell said. "We’ll learn about the Red Planet’s watery past, but most importantly, we’ll learn a lot about the history of habitable environments not only on Mars, but on our own planet as well.”