Spaceflight Insider

Our Spaceflight Heritage: Curiosity three years later

Curiosity lands via a Skycrane. Image Credit: JPL / NASA as seen on Spaceflight Insider

Curiosity lands via a Skycrane. Image Credit: JPL / NASA

Three years ago today on Nov. 26, 2011, an Atlas V 541 (AV-028) rocket launched at 10:02 a.m. EST (1501 a.m. GMT) from Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) located at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Aboard the evolved expendable launch vehicle (EELV) sent aloft under the guidance of United Launch Alliance (ULA ), was the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL ) rover dubbed Curiosity by High School student Clara Ma. The compact car-sized, six-wheeled robot was set to land in Gale Crater. Its mission signified a new step in exploration capabilities by demonstrating the landing of a rover more precisely on the surface of the Red Planet. 

Curiosity launched in November 2011 atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Photo Credit: USAF

Curiosity launched in November 2011 atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Photo Credit: USAF

The first stage of the Atlas V booster was responsible for sending the spacecraft into orbit above Earth. Curiosity was protected on the ride into the black by its payload fairing. Upon reaching space, the fairing separated and the rover made its way through the void that exists between our two worlds.

For this portion of the voyage, MSL was tucked inside its aeroshell. This clam-shaped structure was produced by Lockheed Martin and served as the rover’s home for some nine months – until the rover’s next phase, a moment of terror, began.

The aeroshell was also part of the  Entry, Descent, and Landing  (EDL) system of the spacecraft’s design, which also included “sky crane” landing structure, which safely carried and maneuvered the rover as it entered the Martian atmosphere – and poised it for its mission. MSL’s complete design weighed in at an impressive 8,463 pounds (3,839 kilograms).

While in Gale Crater, Curiosity‘s primary objective is to determine whether life ever arose on the Red Planet. The spacecraft is also studying the world’s climate and geology to prepare for future human exploration.

After traveling more than 350 million miles (563 million km), Curiosity landed in Aeolis Palus, the northern plain of Gale Crater on Aug. 6, 2012. The rover carried several scientific instruments to acquire information about the geology, atmosphere, and environmental conditions of Mars. There are three different cameras, four spectrometers, two radiation detectors, and two sensors: one for monitoring the environment (REMS ) and another for the measuring the heat within the atmosphere (MEDLI ).

Curiosity has been exploring the Red Planet since it touched down in August of 2012. Photo Credit: NASA / JPL / MSSS as seen on Spaceflight Insider

Curiosity has been exploring the Red Planet since it touched down in August of 2012. Photo Credit: NASA / JPL / MSSS

For the past four decades, humans have landed a plethora of vehicles on our neighboring planet in the name of science and exploration. In addition to landers and rovers, there are a fleet of orbiters from various countries, circling the Red Planet and helping to relay data captured on the ground.

This past September, Curiosity completed her first Martian year of science. For comparison, on Earth there are 365 days to complete one year (sol), whereas on Mars it take 687 Earth “days” to complete one Martian year.

Curiosity’s main science objective was to scour Mars in search of evidence that the now barren planet once harbored life. That objective was completed very early on in the mission.

Very close to Curiosity’s landing site, she discovered an ancient riverbed at Yellowknife Bay. After careful analysis, the rover determined that microbial life could have once thrived at the Martian landmark of Gale Crater.

After departing from the interior of Gale Crater, the rover started the arduous journey to her ultimate goal, Mount Sharp.

The team responsible for driving the rover were faced with many challenges from rougher terrain than first expected. As a result Curiosity’s wheels took a bit of a beating than was anticipated. Her route to Mount Sharp had to be revised in order to prevent further wheel damage. After nearly two-years of driving across the Martian surface, Curiosity reached the base of Mount Sharp and is currently investigating the Alexander Hills bedrock.

As with most missions that the space agency undertakes, Curiosity was given a planned life of about one year. Much like her sister rovers, Spirit and Opportunity – she has already surpassed that – and it all began on this day in spaceflight history.


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Heather Smith's fascination for space exploration – started at the tender age of twelve while she was on a sixth-grade field trip in Kenner, Louisiana, walking through a mock-up of the International Space Station and seeing the “space potty” (her terminology has progressed considerably since that time) – she realized at this point that her future lay in the stars. Smith has come to realize that very few people have noticed how much spaceflight technology has improved their lives. She has since dedicated herself to correcting this problem. Inspired by such classic literature as Anne Frank’s Diary, she has honed her writing skills and has signed on as The Spaceflight Group’s coordinator for the organization’s social media efforts.

Reader Comments

My wife Karen and I were at KSC for the launch. Almost a year later, we were at JPL for the landing on Mars. What a couple of spectacular events! Congratulations to NASA and JPL for a stunningly successful mission to date!

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