A Perfect Landing

NASA’s Curiosity rover sends back a picture of Mount Sharp from the surface of Mars.
Picture: NASA

Amazing news. NASA’s Mars rover, Curiosity, successfully and safely landed on the surface of Mars in the early hours of the morning EST on Monday 6th August.

The New York Times summarises:

In a flawless, triumphant technological tour de force, a plutonium-powered rover the size of a small car was lowered at the end of 25-foot-long cables from a hovering rocket stage onto Mars early on Monday morning.

The rover, called Curiosity, ushers in a new era of exploration that could turn up evidence that the Red Planet once had the necessary ingredients for life — or might even still harbor life today. NASA and administration officials were also quick to point to the success to counter criticism that the space agency had turned into a creaky bureaucracy incapable of matching its past glory.

“If anybody has been harboring doubts about the status of U.S. leadership in space,” John P. Holdren, the president’s science adviser, said at a news conference following the landing, “well, there’s a one-ton, automobile-size piece of American ingenuity, and it’s sitting on the surface of Mars right now.”

Among the various images that have so far been received by NASA and released to the public, two are so remarkable that there are hardly words to describe them. Firstly, this picture, captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, of Curiosity making it’s landing on Mars, with supersonic parachute deployed:

Curiosity, supersonic parachute deployed, descending to surface of Mars
Photo: NASA

I believe that this is the first ever image of a human spacecraft landing on another planetary body ever taken from this perspective, from above, by a satellite orbiting that body – certainly I have never seen a comparable image from the Apollo missions either landing on the Moon or returning to Earth. It is amazing to watch the human-made Curiosity spacecraft, so small in the vastness of space but representing the very pinnacle of our technical and engineering ability, operating precisely according to the commands of scientists many millions of miles away, and executing a landing on another world.

Also astonishing is this 4 frames/second low resolution video taken by Curiosity, covering the period from heatshield separation to landing on the Martian surface:

 

We can look forward to many more pictures – panoramic images in colour and in higher resolution – in the coming days, though some accomplishments will have to wait awhile:

Over the first week, Curiosity is to deploy its main antenna, raise a mast containing cameras, a rock-vaporizing laser and other instruments, and take its first panoramic shot of its surroundings.

NASA will spend the first weeks checking out Curiosity before embarking on the first drive. The rover will not scoop its first sample of Martian soil until mid-September at the earliest, and the first drilling into rock is not expected until October or November.

Hopefully the initial success of this mission represents a firm step toward an ultimate manned mission to Mars, with all of the resulting benefits to humanity that it would bring.

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