A little while ago, the Mars Rover Curiosity, also known as the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), successfully landed on Mars, in Gale Crater, an ancient crater named after astronomer Walter Frederick Gale, who observed the red planet in the nineteenth century.
The Mars Rover Curiosity is the biggest and most sophisticated robots sent to Mars to date. It’s three times heavier than the Mars Rovers Spirit and Opportunity for a total of about 900 kg (about 2,000 pounds) and is equipped with instruments that are obviously more advanced.
According to original plans, the Mars Rover Curiosity was supposed to leave in December 2009 to arrive to Mars in October 2010 but there were several delays in the development of the actuators that move it. Since there are specific launch windows to Mars, eventually Curiosity was launched on November 26, 2011 from Cape Canaveral on an Atlas V rocket with the designation 541. This number indicates the characteristics of the specific rocket configuration: the first digit indicates the diameter in meters of the fairing cone on its head, the second digit indicates the number of rocket boosters attached to the rocket base and the third digit indicates the number of engines of the Centaur, which constitutes the second stage of the rocket.
The landing of the Mars Rover Curiosity Mars happened using a new system because it’s too heavy to use the same one that allow the landing of Spirit and Opportunity. In its journey to the Red Planet, Curiosity was protected by an Aeroshell. A heat shield slowed down the speed of its descent to the Martian surface by the ablation of the shield in the atmosphere. At about 7 km (about 4,4 miles) altitude, the heat shield was separated and a parachute opened for a further slow down. At about 1.8 km (a little more than a mile) altitude, its speed was reduced to around 100 m/s and the rover separated from its aeroshell together with its descent stage, a platform with eight rockets using hydrazine as a propellant. A few meters from the surface, a system called Sky Crane sent down the rover through three bridles until there was the contact with the ground.
Now the Mars Rover Curiosity can start its mission to study the climate and geology of Mars with the hope that it will also determine if there was ever life on the red planet. The duration of the mission is at least one Martian year, which means about two Earth years, hoping that it can go on like Opportunity, which still works after more than eight Earth years.
The successful landing of the Mars Rover Curiosity is really big and there’s hope that the interest it generated can stimulate new missions to Mars. India already announced it will send its own probe on Mars, we’ll see if other nations will follow. As it always happens in these cases, technological advances obtained through these missions are many and sometimes unpredictable.