Curiosity begins a high tech survey of Mars

Posted By on August 7, 2012

curiousityroboticexplorergraphic

A great touch active graphic was in the online Wall Street Journal today and opened my eyes to the size of the robotic explorer. Thinking about radio controlled “buggies” of the past, I was thinking that Curiosity wasn’t all that much bigger … until I saw the comparison to the Mini Cooper – wow.

Flying on automatic pilot, the one-ton Curiosity—the largest and most complex mobile laboratory ever landed on another planet—touched down perfectly at about 1:32 a.m. Eastern time Monday. Its first grainy, wide-angle images showed its own left rear wheel parked on the surface of Gale Crater near the equator of Mars, close to the foot of a three-mile-high mountain it aims to explore in months to come.

Passing over the landing site early Monday, the space agency’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured a dramatic image of Curiosity plunging toward the surface, dangling from its fully deployed, 51-foot-wide parachute. But for mission operations manager Michael Watkins, the most powerful image was among the simplest: the shadow of Curiosity looming over the Martian soil.

"It’s beautiful to us because of what it means," Mr. Watkins said. "It is representative of a new Mars we have never seen before."

In the months ahead, scientists expect to probe beneath the planet’s surface crust for evidence of chemistry favorable to microbial life, using the robot rover’s unique high-speed drill. In all, the plutonium-powered, six-wheeled Curiosity carries 10 scientific instruments, including an analytical laboratory, to process mineral and sediment samples.

Curiosity is twice as long, five times as heavy and vastly better equipped than two previous NASA Mars rovers that landed in 2004. A rover named Opportunity has been driving along the rim of a crater called Endeavor. Mired in sand, the Spirit rover, meantime, stopped sending communications in March 2010. But both discovered suggestive evidence that water might have once flowed on the surface of the planet.

The initial images transmitted Monday by Curiosity were taken through the vehicle’s hazard-avoidance cameras, before their transparent but dusty lens covers had been removed. But mission controllers soon expect to be taking sharp, full-color images in 3-D, panoramas and high-definition videos of Gale Crater.

LINK to full article

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  1. lacking in consistency, constancy, or visible order, disconnected; fitful: desultory conversation.
  2. digressing from or unconnected with the main subject; random: a desultory remark.