Mars landing 'gold' for NASA

Debra Erdley
| Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

NASA's newest robotic rover Curiosity touched gently to the surface of Mars early Monday to begin looking for evidence of life, thrilling researchers in Pittsburgh and elsewhere who had a hand in the $2.5 billion adventure.

David Wettergreen, a research professor in CMU's Robotics Institute who has aided several NASA projects including recent tests on Curiosity, was among countless scientists and researchers around the globe glued to their chairs on Sunday and early Monday as the largest rover ever sent to Mars sailed to the surface for a picture-perfect landing. Wettergreen was working late when Curiosity touched down shortly after 1:30 a.m. Monday.

“I took a break in the middle of writing to watch the landing. It was exciting,” he said. He said that some of the technology Carnegie Mellon University researchers developed for use in Curiosity could ripple into scientific efforts around Earth for years.

Curiosity was NASA's seventh landing on the red planet; many other attempts by the United States and other countries to zip past, circle or land on Mars have gone awry.

The arrival was an engineering tour de force, debuting never-before-tried acrobatics packed into “seven minutes of terror” as Curiosity sliced through the Martian atmosphere at 13,000 mph.

In a Hollywood-style finish, cables delicately lowered the rover to the ground at a snail-paced 2 mph. A video camera was set to capture the most dramatic moments and give earthlings their first glimpse of a touchdown on another world.

Celebrations by the mission team were so joyous over the next hour that NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Director Charles Elachi had to plead for calm in order to hold a press conference. He compared NASA's team to Olympic teams.

“This team came back with the gold,” he said.

Curiosity's goal is to scour Mars for basic ingredients essential for life including carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur and oxygen.

Eventually, it will beam high-resolution, panoramic color photographs and data back to Earth.

The nuclear-powered rover is packed with scientific tools, cameras and a weather station. It sports a robotic arm with a power drill, a laser that can zap distant rocks, a chemistry lab to sniff for the chemical building blocks of life and a detector to measure dangerous radiation on the surface.

Wettergreen said Curiosity is spurring excitement among student scientists.

But like the earlier NASA technologies that ushered in the digital age, Wettergreen said students and researchers are looking at how technologies developed to aid Curiosity in navigating the Martian landscape can be applied closer to home.

Mining, under-sea operations and even autonomous self-driven vehicles are just a few of the areas they targeted.

The potential seems real to students, given local researchers' links to Curiosity.

About two dozen CMU graduates are among the scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory that coordinated 10 years of work on Curiosity's mission.

Wettergreen said the basis for Curiosity's navigation software was developed about two decades ago by Tony Stentz, director of the National Robotics Engineering Center, a component of CMU's Robotics Institute. Prior versions of the software guided a pair of smaller rovers that landed on Mars in 2004.

And several months ago, Wettergreen and his colleagues at CMU were asked to perform traction testing on Curiosity's wheels. NASA wanted to know whether Curiosity, which is about five times larger than previous Mars rovers, would be able to navigate sand dunes in the Gale Crater on Mars.

“They wanted to know more about the climbing capability of the wheels. At the time, I was thinking this was a good sign because they were getting more and more confident about being able to pinpoint the landing,” Wettergreen said.

During the next several days, officials expect Curiosity to send back its first color pictures. After several weeks of health checkups, the six-wheel rover could take its first short drive and flex its robotic arm.

The landing site near Mars' equator was selected because signs of past water are everywhere, meeting one of the requirements for life as we know it. Inside Gale Crater is a 3-mile-high mountain, and images from space show the base appears rich in minerals that formed in the presence of water.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or

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