GREENBELT, Md. – The so-called “seven minutes of terror” captured the attention of the world as Curiosity blasted through the Martian atmosphere to a safe landing.
But at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., the bated breath continues for at least another two years.
“As much as they loved building it and watching it launch and now land, they can’t wait for the data,” says NASA Goddard research scientist Noah Petro, about the scientists who worked on the project.
“That’s what it’s all about, getting the data back,” Petro says.
It was at NASA Goddard that a team assembled the instruments that would otherwise fill a laboratory. On board the Curiosity rover, they fit into the space of a typical microwave.
The set of instruments, called the Sample Analysis at Mars (or SAM), will be the means by which the world learns about its next door neighbor.
“It will provide opportunities to really learn about how Mars’ climate has changed, what’s happened in the past and how Mars’ surface has evolved,” he says.
The question inherent in the mission is whether Mars was ever habitable. SAM will search for organic and inorganic molecules that are foundational to life on Earth.
Curiosity landed in a crater, but scientists have their sights set on a nearby mountain. Think Grand Canyon, Petro says, noting layers of the surface could provide a wealth of information about its history.
In a few weeks, an arm will extend from the rover to scoop material from the surface of the planet into the instrument.
The delicate choreography will have watchers all over the world. But around Greenbelt, there’s a sense of pride that SAM was built and tested at the Goddard Space Flight Center.
While scientists must use discretion because of a limited number of samples, the exploration process will carry on at least two years.
“Whatever they do find is going to be groundbreaking, Mars-breaking, whatever you want to call it.”