Mars landing 'gold' for NASA
By Debra Erdley
Published: 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 email@example.com.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic captures 1st PIAA championship in OT thriller
- Kovacevic: A great day to appreciate No. 68
- Orpik skates with injured teammates, not expected back soon
- Steelers safety Polamalu finds himself in tough position
- Chat with Dejan Kovacevic: Dec. 13, 2013
- Jeffrey Manning elected president judge in Allegheny County
- LeBeau wants to come back as Steelers defensive coordinator
- Judge sends armed robbery case against Woodland Hills quarterback to juvenile court
- Briscoe replaces Franchitti at Chip Ganassi Racing
- Penn Township man accused of trying to torch home
- Woman held without bail in mailbox thefts in Shadyside, South Side