“Touchdown confirmed. We’re safe on Mars!” announced mission control from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory after the Mars Science Laboratory’s Curiosity rover landed safely on the Red Planet. After blazing through Mars’ atmosphere at over 21,000 km/h, Curiosity’s unique landing system worked perfectly through the challenging entry, descent, and landing, allowing the rover to touch down and take pictures shortly after. Above are the first two images from Curiosity’s view of Mars’ Gale Crater. The image on the left shows Curiosity’s shadow on Mars.
Pandemonium erupted in JPL’s mission control, across Twitter and other social media outlets as the touchdown was confirmed. With the landing, the Curiosity rover successfully made its eight-month voyage across 560 million-kilometer (352 million miles) to reach Mars, landing on Mars’ surface using a supersonic parachute and a jet-powered sky-crane. Curiosity now begins an ambitious two-year mission to search for signs of past or even present habitability on Mars.
NASA will be posting more of the first images taken by Curiosity at: http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/multimedia/raw/ (Currently the website is being over-run with visitors and may load very slowly).
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After years of planning, setbacks, and ups and downs for the Mars Science Laboratory, the teams of scientists and engineers were able to celebrate with shouts, tears, and lots of hugs following the confirmation of the landing. At about 05:32 UTC on Aug. 6 (10:32 p.m. PDT Aug. 5) Curiosity became the largest robotic rover ever to touch down on another planet.
“It’s just absolutely incredible, and it’s a huge day for the American people,” said NASA administrator Charles Bolden on NASA TV. “Everybody in the morning should be sticking their chest out and saying that’s my rover on Mars because it belongs to everyone.”
During its planned two-year prime mission, Curiosity will explore Gale Crater by roving, drilling, collecting samples, taking oodles of pictures and shooting its laser at rocks to determine the chemical make-up of this enticing region on Mars. In particular, the probe will search for organic carbon that might indicate fossilized life forms. It will also be “sniffing” the air on Mars, trying to smell if gasses like methane — which could be a sign of life — are present.
“Congratulations and long live American Curiosity!” said John Holdren, the senior advisor to President Barack Obama on science and technology, speaking at a post-landing press conference. “The Seven Minutes of Terror has turned into the Seven Minutes of Triumph. 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.”
JPL Director Charles Elachi quoted Teddy Roosevelt: “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat,” he said, “and tonight, we have experienced victory.”
Curiosity carries 10 science instruments with a total mass 15 times as large as the science payloads on the 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 elemental 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.
To handle this science toolkit, Curiosity is twice as long and five times as heavy as Spirit or Opportunity. The Gale Crater landing site places the rover within driving distance of layers of the crater’s interior mountain. Observations from orbit have identified clay and sulfate minerals in the lower layers, indicating a wet history.
“That great things take many people working together to make them happen is one of the fantastic things of human existence,” said Adam Steltzner, who led the Entry Descent and Landing team. “There is a new picture of a new place on Mars. That is, for me, the big payoff.”
“There are many who say that NASA has lost its way,” said John Grunsfeld, the head of NASA’s Science Directorate. “I think its fair to say that NASA knows how to explore, we’ve been exploring, and tonight we can say, again, we are on Mars. The Curiosity story is just beginning.”
If you missed the excitement or want to relive it again, here’s our Virtual Landing Party, a 3+ hour Google+ Hangout on Air: