NASA and ESA Scientists Celebrate Mars Rover Landing
Enlarge image An artist's concept picture features NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a mobile robot for investigating Mars' past or present ability to sustain microbial life. (© picture alliance / Photoshot) At exactly 7:31 on Monday morning at the European Space Agency (ESA) control center in Darmstadt, near Frankfurt, you could hear a pin drop as the Curiosity rover landed on Mars. A moment later, exuberance broke loose from European scientists in the southern Hessian city, accompanied by cheers and applause from their NASA colleagues via a live stream in Pasadena, California. “The machine has landed,” said Paolo Ferri, head of the ESA Solar and Planetary Missions Division: “The worst is over.”
“In such an extremely complicated landing maneuver, a lot could have gone wrong,” said Ferri, laughing in astonishment. The German control center assisted in the delivery of the Mars rover with their ESA space probe Mars Express, which furnished important information on the entry and landing phases to their NASA colleagues.
When the first photos from Curiosity hit Earth at 7:34 a.m. it was clear the mission was a success – another wave of bi-continental scientist jubilation from Darmstadt and Pasadena. Even though the red horizon was faint and clouded from the dust kicked up by the Mars rover, no one seemed to care.
The task at hand for the ESA European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt was indeed cause for concern. Curiosity, sent into space last November, required a massive braking operation to land safely. If the parachute or retrorockets had not functioned, the rover would have crashed into Gale Crater, not far from the Martian equator. The 900-kilogram space vehicle is primarily meant to collect data in preparation for a manned Mars mission sometime in the future, as well as investigate the climate and geology of the planet.
But the touchdown was successful and everyone appeared happy and relieved, with all the men and women of the control room stationed intently in front of computer screens. Perhaps former astronaut and current ESA Director Thomas Reiter is best equipped to explain what is so significant about this particular morning. Whether American, European, Chinese or Indian, he said, “the central question of this mission asks, in my opinion, if there is life on Mars.” It’s a question of interest to every human – whether it was a virus, monad or protozoa, the kind of life form did not seem to matter to the space veteran. Now Curiosity is on the search for signs of life. On board the vehicle, roughly the size of a compact car, are countless measuring instruments from Europe, hailing variously from Spain, Germany and Russia. The $2.5-billion (just over two billion euros) mission is planned to last two years, said Manfred Warhaut, Head of the ESA Mission Operations Department since 2006. However, should the Mars rover comply, he said, it could turn into a very long assignment.