With the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission, NASA gave new impetus to its exploration program for the Red Planet. It was a matter of landing there the largest machine ever sent to this celestial body, viz Curiosity rover of 899 kg, in addition using an innovative landing system called Sky Crane (flying crane).
7 minutes of terror
Locked inside a transport capsule, Curiosity lifted off from Florida on November 26, 2011. After several months of travel, the delicate landing phase called EDL for Entry Descent and Landing (EDL) finally took shape. If the entry into the atmosphere and descent under parachute took a “recipe” previously used successfully by NASA, the finale used this incredible Sky crane, a kind of flying structure that holds Curiosity from above and deposits it on the Martian surface by unrolling cables! The American agency then had the rather unusual idea to communicate about the risk associated with the still famous theme “7 minutes of terrorpopularized by the video below.
The risks associated with landing on March (NASA often uses the term Mars is toughi.e. Mars is difficult), there was therefore a new landing procedure which, due to its complexity, could not be fully tested on Earth!
But on 6 August 2012 at 05:17 Universal Time Curiosity arrived flawlessly at the Gale Crater target area. The event was broadcast live at the Cité de l’Espace in Toulouse with a landing at 7:17 a.m. local time, when it was 10:17 p.m. on August 5 in Pasadena, California at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) responsible for managing this mission.
Below is the recording of this event.
Over the next few days, Curiosity turned on its instruments and began rolling. Via its space agency CNES, France actively participates with 2 instruments : that built-in SAM analysis laboratory (Sample Analysis at Mars) and ChemCam laser camera able to remotely determine the composition of Martian rocks. The latter was designed by IRAP (Institute for Research in Astrophysics and Planetology) in Toulouse. This Franco-American collaboration goes beyond providing the 2 instruments: data and planning of SAM and ChemCam is managed jointly by NASA and CNES (from its Toulouse center).
Ten years after its arrival, Curiosity cumulates 28.44 km covered by the crater Gusev while in full ascent of Mount Sharp, discovering new reliefs that tell more about the Red Planet’s history.
Mars was habitable
Just a few months after arriving in August 2012, the rover had accomplished the main goal of its mission. Take effect, measurements from Curiosity instruments have shown that Mars has been habitable probably a little over 3/4 billion years ago. Important nuance, this does not mean that Mars was inhabited, but that the planet presented favorable conditions for the emergence of life. Searching for traces of past life (meaning microbial) is a mission that has been entrusted to the successor of Curiosity, namely Perseverance (one of the stars of the Martian Terrain in the Cité de l’espace) equipped with specific instruments for this task. France (and IRAP) is still involved in SuperCam, a development of Curiosity’s ChemCam.
Below is a video from NASA’s JPL taking stock of Curiosity’s decade.
Curiosity also indirectly participated in the desire to bring Martian samples back to Earth. This program called Mars Sample Return (MSR) links NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). Perseverance is responsible for collecting samples and placing them in sealed tubes that will travel to our planet through 2 future missions. Recently, NASA and ESA decided that an additional rover was not needed to collect the tubes. And it is Curiosity’s lifetime, with 10 years of good and loyal service despite the difficult Martian conditions (radiation, cold, abrasive dust, etc.), that has shown that its twin Perseverance could handle this task in a few years. (see diagram below).