After a yearlong flight and “seven minutes of terror,” Curiosity stretches its legs.
The rover has landed.
At 1:31 a.m. ET Monday, the Curiosity rover‘s “seven minutes of terror” evaporated in a swirl of fine-grained soil as six aluminum wheels touched the red planet for the first time. NASA had nailed the riskiest Mars landing ever.
Now Curiosity’s two-year search for signs of life begins, with the kind of extended stretch and warm-up you might expect after a cramped, yearlong flight—as detailed here in an excerpt for the new National Geographic e-book Mars Landing 2012.
(Watch live Mars rover landing coverage via NASA TV streaming video.)
If [the rover's essential systems] are working, then comes a gradual unfolding, deploying, and revving up of the ten science instruments and cameras that are Curiosity’s reason for being.
It’s a process that will take days, and in some cases weeks or months. But the [Curiosity] team will know soon whether the key power and communication systems have sustained any damage during the 352-million-mile [567-million-kilometer] journey or during the high-wire landing.
Communication is largely accomplished through relays to three satellites orbiting Mars or through the Deep Space Network, a system of giant interconnected antenna dishes in Madrid, Spain; Canberra, Australia; and the Mojave Desert.
Assuming that communications are established, the first order of business will be to verify the health of the small nuclear battery that will provide power for the rover. Curiosity carries ten pounds of plutonium-238 dioxide as a heat source, which is then used to produce the onboard electricity needed to move the rover, operate the instruments, and keep the frigid nighttime cold at bay.
(Explore an interactive time line of Mars exploration in National Geographic magazine.)
Curiosity Unpacks for a Two-Year Visit
If all is well, what follows will be a highly choreographed unpacking of the rover…
Find out more here.