06 Aug 2012
“Touchdown confirmed!”: almost a cry of deliverance, as well as joy explodes in the middle of the night at the NASA control room. Everything went smoothly and the "seven minutes of terror" - name given by the 'creative' Houston personnel to the innovative and even a little anxious landing manoeuvre designed for this small and very heavy robot - turned out to be seven minutes of spectacle.
The latest jewel conceived by the Mars Science Laboratory, the Curiosity probe (that left Cape Canaveral aboard an Atlas V launcher on November 26 last year) has touched down on the surface of the Red Planet as expected when it was 7:31 in the morning in Italy.
"Adventures like this are at the cutting edge of technology and control" - said the number one of the ASI Enrico Saggese - "They succeeded - he added - to create a real jewel of ability, technology and intelligence, from the landing system, the on board instruments and the choice of the landing site".
The long awaited part of the journey was in fact the final one: Curiosity is too heavy for a "mars landing" by parachute (balloon) requiring the deceleration from over 21,000 to just over 2,000 kilometres per hour as well as the independent execution of hundreds of operations.
Thus was born the so-called "Sky Crane", an entirely computerized manoeuvre (being that remote piloting was impossible): the famous "seven minutes of terror". Feared, and found to be a success. The image on the right shows the first 'photo' of the landing, shot in black and white and released by NASA.
Curiosity is not just a simple probe like its illustrious predecessors, Spirit and Opportunity, but rather an actual self-propelled science lab, which will journey for two years around the Gale crater - the site selected for the landing - examining the terrain of the planet in order to discover whether Mars once was compatible with some form of life.
Made for the Mars Science Laboratory mission, Curiosity is the largest rover ever sent to Mars: weighs 900 Kilos and is built with 6 wheels that can advance 200 meters a day and scan everything around it, analysing on-site soil samples and then send the results to Earth.
The expectations for this unprecedented mission are very high, especially in view of 2018, debut year of ExoMars, European program of Mars exploration, in which Italy has a leading role. Dozens of cities in the United States have broadcast live images of the descent of Curiosity, like the big-screen set up in New York’s Times Square.
Great expectations in Italy also, because Leonardo da Vinci will also be aboard the Mars rover, in a chip containing the self-portrait of the master and the Flight Code, the notebook, dating back to 1505 and preserved in the Royal Library of Turin, on which the Tuscan genius designed and described not only the flight of birds, but also his Flying Machine.
The "seven minutes of terror" were also defined so because communications between the NASA rover and Earth takes 14 minutes, while the planned landing lasted (as actually happened) just 7 minutes. This means that, after the probe had sent the entry signal in the Martian atmosphere, they could only wait with bated breath before knowing its fate.
To expel the fear that something would go wrong and to illustrate how delicate the landing procedure was, NASA created a demo trailer named: "seven minutes of terror", which received 800,000 hits on YouTube, and was shown on the most important cable broadcasts.
Dedicated to all early riser amateur astronomers, the live broadcast (with due delay and all the suspense) of a new and exciting landing on Mars was streamed live on the NASA channel of AsiTv from 6.30.
Here in the upper right is the image that depicts the descent of NASA's Curiosity Rover on the Red Planet, portrayed by the on-board camera, with its parachutes.