'Curiosity' Rover Lands on Mars
If you didn't stay up late last night to watch the final descent of the Mars rover Curiosity to the surface, there's an excellent YouTube video of the last 25 minutes from NASA TV.
What you missed was one of the most dramatic moments in NASA history. An untested landing procedure, entirely automatic, worked spectacularly well, as the one ton, $2.5 billion spacecraft touched down on time and on target.
NASA's Mars science rover Curiosity performed a daredevil descent through pink Martian skies late on Sunday to clinch an historic landing inside an ancient crater, ready to search for signs the Red Planet may once have harbored key ingredients for life.
"It's an enormous step forward in planetary exploration. Nobody has ever done anything like this," said John Holdren, the top science advisor to President Barack Obama, who was visiting JPL for the event. "It was an incredible performance."
Mission controllers burst into applause and cheers as they received signals confirming that the car-sized rover had survived a perilous seven-minute descent NASA called the most elaborate and difficult feat in the annals of robotic spaceflight.
Engineers said the tricky landing sequence, combining a giant parachute with a rocket-pack that lowered the rover to the Martian surface on a tether, allowed for zero margin for error.
"I can't believe this. This is unbelievable," enthused Allen Chen, the deputy head of the rover's descent and landing team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles.
Moments later, Curiosity beamed back its first three images from the Martian surface, one of them showing a wheel of the vehicle and the rover's shadow cast on the rocky terrain.
NASA put the official landing time of Curiosity, touted as the first full-fledged mobile science laboratory sent to a distant world, at 10:32 p.m. Pacific time (1:32 a.m. EDT/0532 GMT).
The landing marked a much-welcome success and a major milestone for a U.S. space agency beset by budget cuts and the recent cancellation of its space shuttle program, NASA's centerpiece for 30 years.
The $2.5 billion Curiosity project, formally called the Mars Science Laboratory, is NASA's first astrobiology mission since the 1970s-era Viking probes.
The descent to the surface was dubbed by NASA "7 Minutes of Terror." That's time it took for the spacecraft to land from the time it slammed into the thin Martian atmosphere at 13,000 MPH until touchdown.
What happened in between those two events was harrowing.
A super sonic parachute deployed while the craft was about 12 miles up, slowing the rate of descent to about mach 7. At that point, the chute was jettisoned and the spacecraft zoomed over the Martian landscape, banking three times to bleed off speed. Once below mach 2, the hard cover protecting the rover was sloughed off and the descent rocket fired up. As the rover drifted over its targeted landing zone at the bottom of Gale Crater near the equator, aa 25-foot long tether lowered the craft gently to the surface. When the wheels touched down, the tether was jettisoned and the descent engine flew off to crash nearby.
It all went perfectly and the first mobile scientific lab ever to touchdown on another planet is ready for its checkout phase and eventual two year mission to analyze rocks and soil for signs of water, and life that may have existed long ago, as well as any life that may be present today.
NASA may be out of the manned space business, but no one doubts the success of its robotic missions to the planets. Over the last 40 years, planetary probes with names like Voyager (now at the boundary between the solar system and deep space), Viking, Spirit, Opportunity, Cassini, New Horizons (which will arrive at distant Pluto in 2015) and missions to asteroids, comets, as well as space telescopes that are revolutionizing our understanding of the cosmos -- all of these probes have advanced human knowledge of the universe and our place in it.
Are NASA's best days behind it? As far as manned missions, that may be so. The ruinously expensive Constellation program that promises to send Americans back in space by 2017 will almost certainly be beaten by a private corporation like Space X, who just received a contract from NASA to ferry astronauts to the space station. Space X may have that capability by as early as 2014. And they will do it cheaper, and probably safer than NASA can accomplish.
But the risk taking involved in landing Curiosity on Mars reminds us of NASA's glory days and what determined men and women can accomplish if given the opportunity to succeed.