Thousands of people gathered at the NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field Sunday night, Aug. 5, to watch the historic landing of the Mars rover Curiosity on the mysterious red planet.
The landing was shown on two large outdoor screens at an event that included gourmet food trucks and NASA scientists on hand to answer questions, NASA Ames spokesman Mike Mewhinney said. He estimated that between 5,000 and 9,000 people attended the free event.
At 10:32 p.m., after more than eight months of space travel, Curiosity touched down inside the Gale Crater near the base of a Martian mountain 3 miles high. The crowd at NASA Ames watched and applauded as jubilation erupted and tears of joy were shed by scientists at Mission Control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, Mewhinney said.
Curiosity has already sent its first images of the rocky terrain. For the next two years, scientists will use the $2.5 billion rover to explore the possibility of life on Mars. One of the people who will be analyzing the data sent back by Curiosity is Tori Hoehler, a research scientist in the exobiology branch at NASA Ames.
Hoehler is a part of the team focused on the Chemistry and Mineralogy Instrument, or CheMin, one of the key instruments aboard Curiosity. CheMin, developed at NASA Ames, will identify minerals found on Mars and measure their abundance, then send the data back to Earth.
"You need a tool that is able to basically decode the evidence that is stored inside rocks," Hoehler said.
The rocks are several billion years old, he said. Minerals on Mars' surface could hold answers to a number of long-standing questions about the planet's history, Hoehler said.
"Every mineral is diagnostic for the conditions in which it formed ... for example, some minerals only form in water," he said.
Hoehler said CheMin is "not much bigger than a basketball," thanks largely to a new approach to X-ray diffraction pioneered by his colleague David Blake, chief of the exobiology branch, that allowed them to shrink the instrument from about the size of a refrigerator.
"When I got to Ames 13 years ago, Dave already had a working prototype of what just landed on Mars last night," Hoehler said.
"It was not a bad time to be here at Ames," Hoehler said. "There are many days when coming to work here at NASA feels like going to work anywhere else. Yesterday was not one of those days."
He said he was moved to see how many community members showed up at Moffett Field to watch the landing, especially since the Olympics were happening.
"It was really special to see how much interest there still is in the public," he said.