Space

Mars Landing: "The Whole Universe is our Future"

NASA exultation at the Curiosity Rover's first photos of Mars.

By Richard A. Lovett

Almost as soon as the Curiosity rover flawlessly executed its improbably complex Mars-landing sequence it soon began sending its first photos.

To go from hypersonic space capsule to naked, wheels-down rover, the vehicle, due to its unprecedented bulk, had to undergo multiple reconfigurations—each a potential mission killer. (Pictures: Mars Rover's "Crazy" Landing, Step by Step.)

And yet, the landing "was fantastic," said mechanical-systems engineer Tommaso Rivellini, who helped design the Mars landing procedure.

"From what we can tell right now, it looks like a textbook landing," said Rivellini, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, where news of the landing was met with cheers, tears, and high fives.

(See "Curiosity Landing on Mars Greeted with Whoops and Tears of Jubilation.")

First Pictures From Mars Rover

In a welcome bonus, within two or three minutes the rover had sent back two tiny black-and-white pictures, one showing a wheel safely on Mars, the other showing Curiosity's shadow, elongated by low-angle Martian sunlight.

There had been no guarantee the rover would be able to snap the photos fast enough to relay them to Earth via the Mars-orbiting Odyssey spacecraft. The orbiter was expected to be in range of Curiosity—aka the Mars Science Laboratory—for mere minutes during the landing.

In fact, Odyssey dipped below Curiosity's line of sight only moments after sending the grainy images. Had the pictures not been received so promptly, they would have had to await the orbiter's next overhead pass, nearly two hours later.

"I didn't expect it to work," said Kenneth Barton, a 47-year-old industrial designer who was among a crowd of several hundred watching the NASA TV feed at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland.

"I have a ton of confidence in NASA, [but] it's such a complex manoeuvre, and there are so many things you just can't test—they have to work right the first time," Barton said.

"I think it's just incredible, skill and luck and everything. And to see pictures right away—it couldn't have gone better."

(Explore an interactive time line of Mars exploration in National Geographic magazine.)

"We Can't Wait to Get the Rover Working"

Barton's mood mirrored that of both the Portland audience and the NASA engineers at JPL Mission Control.

As the rover drew ever closer to Mars, JPL's control room looked to have the atmosphere of a line for a rollercoaster: smiles and tension, anticipation and uncertainty.

Then the landing data began to come in, delayed an agonising 14 minutes—the time it takes light to travel from Mars to Earth.

"Parachute deployed  ... We are in powered flight ... Sky crane has started ... "

With each report, tensions dropped, until finally: "Touchdown confirmed—we're safe on Mars!"

Both in JPL and the Portland museum, hand-wringing gave way to applause, cheers, and—for the JPL engineers—high fives, fist pumps, and hugs.

"We're just totally thrilled at this point," Rivellini said. "I think everybody is jumping for joy."

Science fiction author David D. Levine, in the Portland audience, said, "It's the biggest piece of positive news out of NASA in years."

Added Levine's friend and fellow author, Jay Lake, "Earth is our home and cradle, but the whole universe is our future. Someday my daughter or her daughter may walk on Mars and look at Curiosity as a piece of history."

The mission's goal of searching for life "is huge" added Kristin Powers, 31, a recent philosophy graduate from Portland State University. "It satisfies the drive to find out the answers to those questions of where we come from."

Scientists on the rover team would undoubtedly agree. "We can't wait to get the rover working," Rivellini said, "and start the science part of the mission."

 

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