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!