PASADENA, Calif. -- Space fans, raise a toast: NASA's laser-equipped, beefy-armed, car-sized rover is safe and sound on the surface of the Red Planet. A journey of 352 million miles ended in a supersonic plunge through the Martian atmosphere late Sunday night, and after seven minutes of terror, the Mars rover Curiosity unspooled from the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft and alighted on the dusty surface of Gale Crater.
A chorus of radio beeps signaled the spacecraft's progress, and the Mars Odyssey orbiter transmitted a "safe landing" signal at 10:32 p.m. Pacific time that elicited whoops of joy from the people at Mission Control in California. With wheels down and antennae up, Curiosity is now ready to get to work, combing ancient terrain for signs of life in the Martian past.
"It's the wheel! It's the wheel!" a NASA engineer cried as the first image shot by the craft arrived on Earth. "Oh my God." Curiosity is on the surface!
NASA will lose the signal from its brand-new Mars rover one minute before it touches down on the Red Planet in three weeks, project managers say. This won’t affect the rover’s autonomous airdrop descent, but it could make for some harrowing moments as engineers wait for the long-distance beep signifying Curiosity is safely home.
It's been a big week for those long-serving spacecraft we don't always hear so much about. Earlier this week news broke that Voyager 1 had crossed a benchmark boundary on the far fringes of the solar system, and now Odyssey, launched back in 2001, has surpassed the Mars Global Surveyor as the longest-running mission to Mars.
Youth and vigor have their advantages, but there is something to be said for longevity. NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter has been circling the red planet since 2001 and has just released the best map ever made of the Martian surface.
Ready for an intergalactic adventure? Take this virtual flight over Mariner Valley, Mars's version of the Grand Canyon, a geological feature as deep as Mt. Everest and as wide as the distance from New York to Los Angeles. Kind of makes Earth's biggest dry river bed seem a bit less "Grand," doesn't it?