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!
Unseen and uncontrolled from Earth, the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft took care of entry, descent and landing on its own. Tucked in a chicken pot pie-shaped aeroshell, the spacecraft punched through the Martian atmosphere at 13,200 miles per hour, shedding two laptop-sized blocks of tungsten ballast to adjust its angle of entry. This helped the spacecraft steer itself, aided by thrusters at its edges. Seven miles from the surface, a supersonic-capable parachute deployed to slow the spacecraft down.
Its 15-foot heat shield was subjected to temperatures up to 3,800 degrees Fahrenheit as MSL screamed through the thin atmosphere. About five miles from the surface, the heat shield jettisoned, exposing the spacecraft's bare belly and wheels to the Martian surface. Radar began tracking the ground at Gale to find a clear landing spot.
A few seconds before landing, about a mile up, the spacecraft performed the most daring maneuver of its life, dropping out of its backshell with no supports or airbags. Eight retro-rockets fired up to bring Curiosity to a slow hover, to about 1.7 MPH. Then four of the engines shut off as nylon cords began spooling the rover down on a bridle. This "sky crane" lowered the rover slowly until its six wheels hit the fulvous sand, and then Curiosity sliced its umbilical cord.
From 10 minutes before entry up to the cutting of the bridle, the spacecraft underwent six different vehicle configurations and fired 76 pyrotechnic devices. Then the hovercraft flew away to a crash-landing, leaving the rover alone on the surface of Mars.
"Even the longest of odds are no match for America's unique blend of technical acumen and gutsy determination," said John Holdren, President Obama's chief science adviser, in a press conference after the landing.
Later Monday or Tuesday, NASA will have high-definition, 4-frame-per-second video of this whole sequence, captured by the Mars Descent Imager on Curiosity's undercarriage.
A successful landing is a major coup for NASA, which spent $2.5 billion developing the Mini Cooper-sized rover. Curiosity is the largest and most complicated robot geologist ever constructed, with 10 instruments specially designed to look for evidence of life.
Now the rover and its science teams will get to work. The first driver shifts start at 6 a.m. California time. Stay with us here and on Twitter for the latest updates, and to hear more about Curiosity's first tasks!
What a rush! Kudos to the JPL / NASA team. The adventure now begins...Now all we need to find are a couple of complex organic molecules! I hope this massive success and America's triumphs at the Olympics raises the national spirits high.
One step closer to a human colony on Mars, and eventually Mars Shipyards, building starships to explore the Cosmos.
If mankind spent more time exploring the deep sea it would have more benefits--the ability to mine deep frozen methane for example.
Quit wasting money on exploring dead planets that can not support life with out a magnetic field to dampen the solar wind.
Same old story of mankind--the inability to put efforts where they are needed--and so we have wars over resources ad infinitum.
A bunch of drug addicts americans launched ( in the name of humanity) a robot probe to Mars. Hopefully they will all be able to emigrate to Mars soon and never come back.
Let me guess, you 2 also have nothing good to say about the shuttles. Because you know, they were expensive and not what they were supposed to be originally blah blah. This is the real world, get over it. You want to make decisions, then be somebody.
Other than that, I have to say I had to keep my hopes from getting up. I was fairly certain it would malfunction in some tiny way and fail. Way to go NASA/JPL. Now lets run some red lights.
Great work! Rock on Curiosity! Congratulations to all!
What you're saying is a matter of opinion. I think that taking the next step to becoming an interplanetary race is far more important than the further draining our of our planets few natural resources. To each his own.
This is so cool! I bet the Martians are nervous now; those little tiny buggers!
HuRRaY for NASA! KuDoS! WoWzeRs!!!!!! GREAT JOB!!!!!!
Fantastic! I was hoping it would work, but at the same time fairly sure we would never hear from Curiosity again.
But now NASA is going to be expected to do the impossible on a routine basis.