Category Archives: Science news

Lord Heseltine answers questions from the audience. Image credit: John Russell

Lord Heseltine on Science and Industrial Strategy

Boffins, crazy ideas and blue sky research might not sound like the building blocks of an industrial policy. However, one of the most seasoned figures in modern politics argued this week that science is not just a cultural activity but plays a central role in driving the nation’s economy. Lord Heseltine, the former deputy Prime Minister, delivered this message to a 300-strong audience attending the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) Annual Lecture.

Speaking in the Science Museum’s IMAX theatre, Lord Heseltine, who described the Museum as “very impressive”, called for science to help drive economic growth in the UK (the full speech can be read here) as well as discussing research, industrial strategy and the ability of technology to inspiring young people.

Lord Heseltine gives the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) Annual Lecture. Image credit: John Russell

Drawing on the development of IMAX technology, which has seen decades of advances in technology to improve the public’s cinematic experience, Lord Heseltine noted that if just one student went “to school tomorrow with a renewed enthusiasm for their science lessons, then the pioneers of IMAX technology would surely have done a worthwhile job.”

Lord Heseltine last delivered the CaSE Annual Lecture in 1989, when the organisation was called Save British Science, just a fortnight after the fall of the Berlin Wall. That event, and the political harmony that followed, drove economic collaboration across Europe, helping create today’s global economy.

How to keep up with other nations in the global economy is central to Lord Heseltine’s recently published report: No stone unturned in pursuit of growth. Lord Heseltine called for the government to “place educational improvement, the raising of basic standards and the complete intolerance of sink schools” at the heart of the growth agenda – a key theme of his report.

In his speech, Lord Heseltine was optimistic about the future of science education, noting that “science has never been so accessible or exciting,” and encouraging members of the audience to visit schools and meet students, “Every child remembers the brilliant adult who sparked a flame of ambition in their head, who changed the course of their life forever.”

Inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineer’s is a vital part of the Museum’s mission. Engaging with 400,000 school children a year, the Museum’s Learning team work with thousands of science teachers across the country to help them develop innovative tools and techniques to deliver outstanding science lessons.

Lord Heseltine answers questions from the audience. Image credit: John Russell

The speech concluded with a look at industrial strategy, “It is about government working hand-in-hand with business to help our industrial base get ahead,” before a Q&A discussion with audience members. The Q&A touched on the benefits of blue skies research; with Lord Heseltine commenting that research must not only be done for its own sake, but also for the pursuit of growth.

Lord Heseltine’s comments here at the Museum come in the wake of a recent speech at the Royal Society by the Chancellor, who emphasised the central role of science in driving a modern, dynamic economy.

James Gleick

The Information wins science book prize

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum Group.

The bestselling author, James Gleick, has won the world’s most prestigious science book prize with his revelatory chronicle of how information has become the defining quality of the modern age.

Gleick’s The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (Fouth Estate) was announced as the winner of the £10,000 2012 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books at the Royal Society in London.

James Gleick

The bestselling author James Gleick was announced as the winner of the £10,000 2012 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books at the Royal Society, London

Gleick, who spent seven years working on the book, said he was surprised, and startled in an event at the society chaired by the comedian, actor and popular science writer, Ben Miller, and broadcast by Tom Clarke of Channel 4 news.

After thanking his agent, editor and wife, the New York born journalist remarked on how, unlike researchers who write popular science books, he felt like he was an outsider with his ‘face pressed against the glass.’

The veteran American writer made a huge debut with his first book, Chaos (1987), an international bestseller which provided insights into the apparent disorder in complex systems and made everyone aware of the extraordinary influence of the ‘butterfly effect.’ Since then he has written Pulitzer-Prize shortlisted biographies of two heroes of science, Richard Feynman and Isaac Newton.

Gleick’s latest work tells the story of information, from the theory of information proposed by American Claude Shannon to the current revolution in biological information, replicated and transmitted in the form of DNA since the origin of life, and the tsumani of data that now engulf us to become the very quintessence of 21st century society.

Along the way the reader encounters many figures that are also celebrated in the Science Museum, such as Charles Babbage, inventor of the first great mechanical computer; Ada Lovelace, the dazzling daughter of the poet Byron, who became the first true programmer, and Alan Turing, who lay the foundations of modern computing and cracked both the codes of nature and the Nazi war machine.

The stories behind the revolutions that created today’s information age will also form the core of a forthcoming multi-million pound gallery, Making Modern Communications, scheduled to open in the museum in 2014.

The judges on this year’s judging panel included the authors Jasper Fforde and Tania Hershman, BBC Commissioning Editor for Science Kim Shillinglaw and Royal Society University Research Fellow Samuel Turvey. The panel was chaired by Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who said the decision was difficult, though unanimous. “The Information “an ambitious and insightful book that takes us, with verve and fizz, on a journey from African drums to computers. It is one of those very rare books that provide a completely new framework for understanding the world around us.”

The prize, award by Society president Sir Paul Nurse, saw off strong competition from a heavyweight shortlist:

• Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer, published by Allen Lane (Penguin Books), on his quest to understand human memory.

• My Beautiful Genome by Lone Frank, published by Oneworld, a personal perspective on personal genetics

• The Hidden Reality by Brian Greene, published by Allen Lane (Penguin Books), which explores parallel universes and the laws of the cosmos.

• The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker, published by Allen Lane (Penguin Books), which reveals how, contrary to popular belief, humankind has become progressively less violent over the millennia.

• The Viral Storm by Nathan Wolfe, published by Allen Lane (Penguin Books), which examines the world of viruses and why modern life has made our species vulnerable to the threat of a global pandemic and how to remain ahead of the threat.

Sir Paul remarked that there had been a renaissance of science writing and admitted it was a ‘pity that someone had to win.’ Despite the lack of British writers on the shortlist, many were present in the audience, including Armand Leroi, Tim Radford, Jo Marchant, Martin Rees, Stuart Clark, Helena Cronin, Philip Ball, Graham Farmelo, Alex Bellos and Jim Al-Khalili.

Set up in 1988 as the “Science Book Prizes”, it became the Rhône-Poulenc Prizes for Science Books from 1990 – 2000, then became the Aventis Prizes for Science Books from 2001 – 2006 and the Royal Society Prize for Science Books from 2007 – 2010. Now in its 25th year, the book prize is now sponsored by the global investment management company Winton Capital Management. David Harding, Founder and Chairman , congratulated James Gleick as ‘ a worthy winner in a strong field’ and thanked the shortlisted authors for helping to turn the sea of scientific information into knowledge.

Roger Highfield is an author, editor of book shortlisted for the prize in 2008 (A Life Decoded by Craig Venter) and Director of External Affairs of the Science Museum Group.

John Liffen, Curator of Communication at the Science Museum inspects the Brother CM-1000

Oh Brother where art thou…

By Rachel Boon, Assistant Curator of Technologies and Engineering

Clack clack clack clack… ping! The sound of a typewriter sweeping across the page, already becoming a faint memory, will soon fall silent as the mass manufacturing of this technology ends in the UK. Typewriters are iconic machines and have served as the tool of communication over the last 130 years. Whether it’s the legacy of the Beat generation of authors; William Burroughs or Jack Kerouac capturing post-war America on the page, or images of secretaries fiercely typing away, the typewriter has been indoctrinated into our historical and cultural heritage.

Marking the end of UK typewriter production

The place which marked the end of UK typewriter production was Ruabon, at the Brother Factory set within the beautiful Welsh countryside. The factory’s 200 employees witnessed the final model of the Brother CM-1000 being packed into its box to a soundtrack of emotional sighs and cheers. This object is the 5,855,533rd of its type to be produced but the only one which has a place in the Science Museum collection. Brother have kindly donated this last British made typewriter to the Museum, which will be an invaluable addition to the 200 typewriters already in our collection.

John Liffen, Curator of Communication at the Science Museum inspects the Brother CM-1000 (l) and Wheatstone telegraph printer (r), which share a similar printing mechanism

Interestingly, the CM1000 (above left) shares a similar mechanism with another object in our collection, one of the earliest telegraph printers built by Sir Charles Wheatstone in the mid 19th century (above right). This latest addition to the collection will enable us to tell the story of how technology has evolved and been shaped by our communication needs.

A Higgs boson is produced in the ATLAS detector

The boring boson?

Last week scientists working on the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva updated their colleagues on the newly-discovered Higgs boson. They revealed what they now know about the particle – and so far, it is behaving exactly as they expected. While this might seem like good news, for some people it is the opposite, because a well-behaved Higgs might rule out some intriguing new physics theories.

A Higgs boson is produced in the ATLAS detector

A Higgs boson is produced in the ATLAS detector

The Higgs – the particle which explains why others have mass – is incredibly unstable and only exists for a fraction of a second before decaying into other, more common particles. Any information about it comes second-hand from these other particles, and working out the properties is rather like putting together clues in a Sherlock Holmes tale, only with more mathematics.

Finding the Higgs in July was a wonderful coup for the LHC, but there now follows years of painstaking work to determine its precise properties. If the Higgs behaves even a smidgen differently from predictions, then it might point scientists in the direction of a new theory.

One particularly popular idea has the rather grand name of “supersymmetry”, which as we wrote on this blog last week, is looking less likely to be true.

There are lots of problems with current theories about the Universe – they don’t explain dark matter, and particle physics is completely incompatible with Einstein’s theories of gravity. Supersymmetry solves some of these issues in a whizz of complicated mathematics, but requires the existence of a whole family of new particles. If they exist, the Higgs’ properties should reveal them.

The results announced on Wednseday in Japan don’t lend the under-fire supersymmetry any more support. They suggest that so far, the Higgs behaves just as our current theory predicts it should. Specifically, when it decays, it turns into different types of particles at the rates we expect.

To some in the community, the Higgs’ conformity is rather disappointing.  But not all of the analysis was ready for the Japan conference and there is still uncertainty around the results that were announced, and supersymmetry still could work.

Even though the LHC has already analysed more data in two years than its predecessor managed in twenty, the measurements are not yet particularly precise, and the Higgs may still harbour surprises. The LHC still has not detected a Higgs decaying into quarks (the smallest unit of matter), for example – we just know that since we haven’t seen it yet, it can’t happen often. In other words: watch this space.

Visitors to the Science Museum will have a chance to get up close and personal with the LHC at a new exhibition opening in November 2013.

View of the LHCb cavern

Supersymmetry in a spin

Dr. Harry Cliff, a Physicist working on the LHCb experiment and the first Science Museum Fellow of Modern Science, writes about a new discovery at CERN for our blog. A new Science Museum exhibition about the Large Hadron Collider will open in November 2013, showcasing particle detectors and the stories of scientific discoveries.

There were high hopes that the world’s most powerful particle collider would find evidence for the theory of supersymmetry, which postulates that every member of the known bestiary of sub-atomic particles has a related but much more massive “super-partner”. The theory is considered more elegant than the current Standard Model of particles and forces and is particularly appealing as some of these supersymmetric particles, or “sparticles”, could account for the “dark matter” that sculpts the structure of the visible universe.

But the experiment I work on at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has spotted of one of the rarest particle decays ever seen in nature, a result that poses a serious challenge to supporters of “new physics” theories like supersymmetry.

View of the LHCb cavern

View of the LHCb cavern. Image credit: CERN

Results presented at the Hadron Collider Physics conference in Kyoto early this morning show the first convincing evidence for a particle called a Bs meson decaying into two muons. The decay was seen by my colleagues at the LHC beauty (LHCb) experiment, a gigantic particle detector on the 27km LHC ring at CERN, near Geneva.

This process is predicted to be very rare in the Standard Model, but if ideas like supersymmetry are correct then it could be much more common. However, the decay seems to be just as rare as the Standard Model predicted.

As we sat sharing a coffee at the Cavendish lab in Cambridge, Dr Marc-Olivier Bettler, a member of the international team who produced the result, told me it puts “strong constraints” on supersymmetry.

Rarer than winning the lottery
The LHC has been smashing protons into each other at close to the speed of light almost non-stop since November 2009. Each collision creates a shower of new particles, and occasionally a Bs meson is produced. The LHCb detector was built to study exotic these exotic particles.

Dr Bettler and his colleagues churned through hundreds of trillions of collisions produced by the LHC in search of the decay. The huge amount of data recorded by the LHCb experiment was processed using a world-wide network of computer processors known as the Grid. In the end they turned up just a handful of likely candidates.

Their results show that the chance of a Bs meson converting to two muons is about one in 300 million. That’s thirty times less likely than winning the jackpot on the lottery with a single ticket.

New physics hiding
Finding evidence of the decay is a triumph for LHCb, but will be a big disappointment for theorists who have spent many years working on supersymmetry. Prof. Val Gibson, leader of the LHCb group at the University of Cambridge said “this key result is putting our supersymmetry theory colleagues in a spin”. The result also makes it much less likely that the other main LHC experiments, ATLAS and CMS, will discover signs of supersymmetric particles any time soon. “If new physics is present then it is hiding very well behind the Standard Model” said Dr Bettler.

Even though it may be less thrilling than discovering new particles or forces of nature, these extremely precise measurements are crucial to improving our understanding of the Universe. “This result is important because it tells us what new physics isn’t.” Dr Bettler certainly didn’t find the outcome disappointing, describing his reaction at seeing the results for the first time two weeks ago as “wow! I was very excited. It has been a very exciting two weeks, that’s for sure.”

Visitors to the Science Museum will have a chance to get up close and personal with the LHC at a new exhibition opening in November 2013. The exhibition will showcase real pieces of the LHC, including an intricate particle detector from the heart of the LHCb experiment.

Felix Baumgartner, with the Apollo 10 Command Capsule at the Science Museum

Felix Baumgartner drops into Science Museum

On a Sunday afternoon in October, Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner had just seconds to enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime view, before stepping off his capsule and reaching supersonic speeds as he fell into the void.

Twenty four miles and a little over five minutes after leaving the capsule, Felix was back on Earth, having broken the sound barrier and reached speeds of up to 834 mph as part of the Red Bull Stratos project.

[yframe url='http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FHtvDA0W34I']

Today Felix visited the Science Museum where he told the museum’s Roger Highfield how, with only 10 minutes of oxygen remaining, he had just a few seconds to enjoy the majestic view of his home world before continuing with the mission protocol. Felix also talked about the first few terrifying moments, when he spun out of control in the near-vacuum conditions.

Taking time out of his busy schedule, Felix took a quick tour, starting with the Making the Modern World gallery, the museum’s ‘greatest hits’ of modern science and technology, which includes the Apollo 10 Command capsule.

Felix Baumgartner, with the Apollo 10 Command Capsule at the Science Museum

Felix Baumgartner, with the Apollo 10 Command Capsule at the Science Museum

Stopping to admire the Apollo 10 capsule, Felix discussed the differences with his own capsule and took a special interest in Apollo’s battered heat shield – a testament to an achievement that seems greater today, in 2012, than it did in 1969.

Col. Joe Kittinger, the previous freefall record holder (r) with the Science Museum's Roger Highfield (l)

Col. Joe Kittinger, the previous freefall record holder (r) with the Science Museum's Roger Highfield (l)

Felix visited the museum with his mentor Joe Kittinger - an 84-year-old former U.S. Air Force colonel who set the previous freefall record in 1960 when he jumped from 102,800 feet. Joe was the “Capcom” (capsule communications) and primary point of radio contact for Felix Baumgartner during his remarkable mission.

A Lifetime of Work

A Lifetime of Work: The Lovelock Archive

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs, Science Museum

It’s an amazing image to conjure with: the 23-year old James Lovelock, our most famous independent scientist, cradling a baby in his arms who would grow to become the world’s best known scientist, Stephen Hawking.

Lovelock told me about this touching encounter during one of his recent visits to the Science Museum, a vivid reminder of why the museum has spent £300,000 on his archive, an extraordinary collection of notebooks, manuscripts photographs and correspondence that reveals the remarkable extent of his research over a lifetime, from cryobiology and colds to Gaia and geoengineering.

A Lifetime of Work

A Lifetime of Work: Notebooks, manuscripts photographs and correspondence from the Lovelock archive

Lovelock, who was born on 26 July 1919, must have encountered the great cosmologist in the year of Hawking’s birth, 1942, when he was working at the Medical Research Council’s National Institute for Medical Research, after graduating in chemistry from Manchester University the year before.

Hawking’s father was Frank Hawking (1905-1986) who spent much of his working life at the NIMR studying parasitology. Lovelock was doing research at the time of the encounter on sneezing and disinfection, publishing his first scientific paper, in the British Medical Journal, that same year.

As for his impact, there’s no better way to emphasise Lovelock’s stature than to read the foreword of one of his recent books, The Vanishing Face of Gaia, by Lord Rees, Astronomer Royal, and the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, who describes him as among the most important independent scientists of the last century: “He is a hero to many scientists – certainly to me.”

Lovelock has made headlines for his views on the environment, and his support for nuclear power (he once told me he would happily store nuclear waste in his garden), but he is best known for introducing the world to the seductive idea of Gaia, which says the Earth behaves as though it were an organism. The concept first reached a wide audience in 1975 in an article published in New Scientist, but was ridiculed, attacked for being teleological, even mocked as an “evil religion”.

Lovelock’s computer simulation, Daisyworld, helped Gaia mature from a hypothesis into a theory by putting it on a mathematical foundation. Light, and dark, coloured daisies evolved within an idealised world, waxing and waning to balance the way they absorbed and reflected sunlight to regulate the temperature, so it was optimum for plant growth. Among the items acquired by the museum is a Hewlett Packard computer that Lovelock used for Daisyworld.

Lovelock’s computer simulation, Daisyworld

Lovelock’s computer simulation, Daisyworld

Bolstering Lovelock’s Gaian vision came experimental evidence, the discovery that sulphur from ocean algae circulated worldwide in a form that has since been linked with the formation of clouds that are able to cool the world by reflecting sunlight back into space. Today, Gaia’s influence stretches beyond Earth to music, fiction and even computer games.

The Science Museum’s collection includes Lovelock’s Electron Capture Detector which he invented in 1956 to detect a range of substances, he explained, ‘mostly nasty poisons and carcinogens, or else harmful to the atmosphere like nitrous oxide and halocarbons.’ In the summer of 1967 Lovelock used it measured the supposedly clean air blowing off the Atlantic onto Ireland’s west coast and found that it contained CFCs, now known to cause ozone depletion. ‘It’s sad that it would now be almost impossible for a lone scientist like me to make or use an ECD without breaking the health and safety laws,’ he told me.

Electron capture detector for a gas chromatograph

James Lovelock developed this highly sensitive detector for measuring air pollution in 1960.

I have met this green guru on and off since 1991 and, the last time we talked, he was as provocative as ever. The attempts to model the Earth’s climate system do not yet fully include the response of the ecosystem of the land or oceans, and Lovelock warned about feedback effects, some that can damp down climate change and others that accelerate it, and he predicts a threshold above which there could be a five degree increase in temperature.

He is withering about the attempt of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to forge a consensus, a word that he says has no place in science. That is no surprise. From 1964 Lovelock has worked as an independent scientist and he is writing a book about being a lone scientist in response to an article in the Wall Street Journal which argued that the scientific process can only happen through collaboration. Lovelock believes that lone scientists can work more like artists in that they can be reflective and do not necessarily need other people to collaborate with.

And when it comes to the fate of our home world, all is not lost. Lovelock, like many others, is receptive to another idea that, relatively recently, was laughed off as unrealistic, even a little mad: geoengineering, or “planetary medicine”, which could mean cooling the Earth by the use of space mirrors or clouds of particulates.

Lovelock, who has been visiting the Science Museum since the age of seven, teamed with a former Museum Director, Chris Rapley, to devise another way to cool our overheated world: pumping chilly waters from the ocean depths to fertilize the growth of carbon-hungry blooms.

Film still. Knightsbridge, London, looking East towards Hyde Park Corner, c1902

World’s first colour moving pictures discovered

Today, our sister museum, the National Media Museum, unveiled the earliest colour moving pictures ever made. These vivid images are now on show to the public for the first time in over a hundred years at the Museum in Bradford.

These films were made by photographer and inventor Edward Turner using a process he patented with his financial backer Frederick Lee in 1899. Experts at the Museum have dated the films to 1901/2, making these the earliest examples of colour moving pictures in existence.

Lee and Turner’s invention has always been regarded by film historians as a practical failure but it has now been ‘unlocked’ through digital technology, revealing the images produced by the process for the first time in over a hundred years. It’s also a story of young death and commercial intrigue in the earliest days of the film industry.

Film still. Knightsbridge, London, looking East towards Hyde Park Corner, c1902 courtesy of the National Media Museum/SSPL

Film still. Knightsbridge, London, looking East towards Hyde Park Corner, c1902 courtesy of the National Media Museum/SSPL

Find out more about this discovery on the National Media Museum blog

Dance of DNA at Science Museum

Switch To A Different You?

By Dr Corrinne Burns, Assistant Content Developer

Do you look like your parents? Do you have your mother’s green eyes, or your father’s freckles? We’re so used to thinking of physical traits in terms of genes – genes for height, genes for eye colour, even genes for baldness. But new research reveals that your genes are only a tiny part of what makes you, you. In our new display case, Switch To A Different You? – the Science Museum explores the significance of a groundbreaking discovery.

Switch To A Different You?

Genes make up only around 2% of your DNA. So what’s the rest of it for? We used to think that most of our DNA was junk – but it isn’t. Scientists working on the Encyclopaedia of DNA Elements project – called ENCODE for short – have discovered that, in reality, our “junk” DNA is made up of millions of switches, which act to turn those few genes on and off. Your DNA is, in effect, a gigantic, dynamic, dancing switchboard.

What does this mean for science – and for our sense of identity? If our genes are such a small part of our DNA, then why do we look the way we do? How does our childhood environment influence the behaviour of our genetic switchboard? If we could live our life again, would we look very different? And how will the discovery of this vast genetic switchboard help us to understand – and maybe treat – genetic diseases?

The Museum is celebrating ENCODE’s groundbreaking discoveries in a unique way. Ling Lee, on the science news team here at the Museum, came up with the wonderful idea of visualising DNA replication via an aerial silk dance. So Ling, together with Ewan Birney, one of the ENCODE project leaders, worked with acrobat Michèle Lainé of Viva Aerial Dance to choreograph a spectacular (and scientifically accurate!) performance. Join us on the Who Am I gallery at 1.30 pm tomorrow, Thursday 6th September, to see the dance that Ling and Michele created – and to find out more about the science that inspired the display.

Dance of DNA at Science Museum

In Switch To A Different You?, we begin to explore the significance of ENCODE’s discoveries. We don’t have all the answers – this science is so new that we don’t yet know where it will lead us. But we want to know what you think. If you could live your life all over again, do you think you’d be the same person you are today?

Mars rover Curiosity has landed on the Red Planet

Mars rover Curiosity has landed on the Red Planet

By Roger Highfield

The one-ton Curiosity rover, suspended from the Sky Crane ‘rocket backpack’, touched down onto Mars first thing this morning to end a 36-week flight and begin a two-year investigation of the Gale Crater.

Mars rover Curiosity has landed on the Red Planet

Many missions to Mars have failed, such as Britain’s ill fated Beagle 2 mission, a replica of which can be viewed in the Science Museum.

However, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft that carried the six wheeled rover, succeeded in the most complex landing ever attempted on Mars, including the final severing of the nylon bridle cords and flight of the Sky Crane away from the landing site, according to the US space agency Nasa.

The most ambitious mission of its kind, and the largest ever to land on another planet, aims to help answer the question of whether there is life on Mars, though it will focus on finding the ingredients rather than life itself (not least because no one can quite agree on what life actually is)

In 1854, William Whewell, a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, who popularized the word scientist, theorized that Mars had seas, land and possibly life forms. Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli speculated in his 1893 book, Life on Mars that there were channels on the surface (actually optical illusions created by the telescopes of the time)

The term use used was “canali” in Italian, meaning “channels” but the term was mistranslated into English as “canals”, which suggested an artificial construction and triggered much speculation. In our Cosmos & Culture gallery, a Mars globe by Antoniadi, 1896-99 shows surface details named by Schiaparelli in 1877.

Among the most fervent supporters of the artificial-canal hypothesis was the American astronomer Percival Lowell, who spent much of his life trying to prove the existence of intelligent life on the red planet. The search for life on Mars appeared to hit a dead end in 1976 when Viking landers touched down on the red planet and failed to detect activity.

There was a huge flurry of excitement a decade later, when Nasa thought it had found evidence of life in a Mars meteorite but doubts have since been cast on that finding, although meteorites may still hold Important clues.

Some still claim the Viking spacecraft may in fact have encountered signs of a life form however the debate will not end until there is direct evidence and Curiosity will search for conditions on the Red Planet that might enable microbial life to thrive, which can endure extreme conditions.

Al Chen, an engineer on the rover’s entry, descent and landing team, said the words that space scientists had been awaiting for a decade: “Touchdown confirmed.” Applause erupted after images arrived at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge. The rover itself tweeted an image of its shadow on @MarsCuriosity.

Cheering at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge

“Today, the wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze the trail for human footprints on Mars. Curiosity, the most sophisticated rover ever built, is now on the surface of the Red Planet, where it will seek to answer age-old questions about whether life ever existed on Mars — or if the planet can sustain life in the future,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “President Obama has laid out a bold vision for sending humans to Mars in the mid-2030′s, and today’s landing marks a significant step toward achieving this goal.”

Previous missions such as Vikings I and II and the Mars Phoenix Lander used retrorockets to lower spacecraft all the way to the surface atop a legged lander. Others, such as Beagle 2, have used airbags. Neither method is feasible for a rover of this size.

Curiosity landed around 6.30am but it took almost 14 minutes for the news to reach Earth. It settled down near the foot of a mountain three miles tall and 96 miles inside Gale Crater, after the use of parachute, heat shield, 76 explosive bolts and sky crane, an eight rocket jetpack attached to the rover. It was billed by Nasa as ‘seven minutes of terror.’

Remarkably, an image of the dramatic descent was captured by the Mars Reconnaissance orbiter and by an onboard camera, which ends by revealing the plumes of dust sent up when the Sky Crane went into action. See this composite video of the simulated and actual descent, plus the scenes in mission control.

Curiosity returned its first view of Mars, a wide-angle scene of rocky ground near the front of the rover. About two hours after landing it transmitted a higher resolution image of its new home. More images are anticipated as the mission blends observations of the landing site with activities to configure the rover for work and check the performance of its instruments and mechanisms. For the latest images, check the mission multimedia gallery which includes the first colour image.

“Our Curiosity is talking to us from the surface of Mars,” said MSL Project Manager Peter Theisinger of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “The landing takes us past the most hazardous moments for this project, and begins a new and exciting mission to pursue its scientific objectives.”

Curiosity carries 10 science instruments with a total mass 15 times as large as the science payloads on the earlier Nasa Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Some of the tools are the first of their kind on Mars, such as a laser-firing instrument for checking the composition of rocks from a distance.

The rover will use a drill and scoop at the end of its robotic arm to gather soil and powdered samples of rock interiors, then sieve and parcel out these samples into analytical laboratory instruments inside the rover.

Follow the mission on Facebook and Twitter and find pictures on the Nasa website.