NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory safely delivered the Curiosity rover to the surface of Mars Sunday night, in an effort largely aided by team members with ties to San Diego State.
The landing of the one-ton rover marks the beginning of a two-year, $2.5 billion investigation on whether its study area has offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life. Six SDSU alumni are members of the laboratory team that landed the rover, with positions ranging from engineers to spacecraft navigators. The final seven minutes of the rover’s landing, dubbed the “Seven Minutes of Terror” due to the small time given for the rover to slow its speed by 13,000 miles per hour, went flawlessly.
“The Seven Minutes of Terror has turned into the Seven Minutes of Triumph,” NASA Associate Administrator for Science John Grunsfeld said. “My immense joy in the success of this mission is matched only by overwhelming pride I feel for the women and men of the mission’s team.”
Curiosity returned its first view of the Red Planet last night—the rocky ground near the front of the rover where it landed close to the base of a mountain. More images are anticipated in the next several days, according to a statement from the MSL.
“Curiosity is a bold step forward in learning about our neighboring planet, but this mission does not stand alone. It is part of a sustained, coordinated program of Mars exploration,” Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters, said. “This mission transitions the program’s science emphasis from the planet’s water history to its potential for past or present life.”
Jordan Evans studied aerospace engineering at SDSU and serves as the development and operations manager. Mark Ryne earned his bachelor’s degree from SDSU in astronomy and is the laboratory’s spacecraft navigator. Ryne has worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the MSL project, for 25 years.
Other SDSU alumni who have contributed to the research and operations of the project include Joey Brown, an entry, descent and landing engineer; Brandon Florow, a mechanical systems engineer; Bonnie Theberge, the group supervisor for the MSL Testbed team and Dave Herman, an MRO engineer.
According to a Jet Propulsion Laboratory statement, the Odyssey, which landed on Mars in 2001 and was originally planned to provide a near-real-time communication link with Curiosity, entered safe mode July 11. This would have affected communication operations, but not the rover’s landing, as the Odyssey could have arrived over the landing area about two minutes after Curiosity landed. But a thruster burn nudged Odyssey a few minutes ahead in its orbit, meaning that was operating normally and able to provide appropriate communications during the Curiosity landing.