PASADENA, Calif. — NASA’s Curiosity rover has transmitted a low-resolution video showing the last 2 1/2 minutes of its white-knuckle dive through the Martian atmosphere, giving earthlings a sneak peek of a spacecraft landing on another world.
As thumbnails of the video flashed on a big screen on Monday, scientists and engineers at the NASA Jet Propulsion let out “oohs” and “aahs.” The recording began with the protective heat shield falling away and ended with dust being kicked up as the rover was lowered by cables inside an ancient crater.
It was a sneak preview, since it’ll take some time before full-resolution frames are beamed back depending on other priorities.
The full video “will just be exquisite,” said Michael Malin, the chief scientist of the instrument.
NASA celebrated the precision landing of a rover on Mars and marveled over the mission’s flurry of photographs — grainy, black-and-white images of Martian gravel, a mountain at sunset and, most exciting of all, the spacecraft’s white-knuckle plunge through the red planet’s atmosphere.
[A special website provides updates and more images from the mission.]
Curiosity, a roving laboratory the size of a compact car, landed right on target late Sunday after an eight-month, 352-million-mile journey. It parked its six wheels about four miles from its ultimate science destination — Mount Sharp, rising from the floor of Gale Crater near the equator.
“Some people have been working on this for 10 years,” said Bobby Braun, a professor at Georgia Tech and a long-time NASA executive, in a telephone interview from Mission Control in California. “This is an asset for the whole world, so we’re going to be careful.”
Curiosity initially returned its first view of Mars, a wide-angle scene of rocky ground near the front of the rover. More images are anticipated in the next several days as the mission blends observations of the landing site with activities to configure the rover for work and check the performance of its instruments and mechanisms, NASA said.
The rover is currently in a safe state, Braun said. It will be checked out and deployed over several days.
“The cameras have to be calibrated,” he said. “This is an elaborate, complex machine.”
Curiosity carries 10 science instruments with a total mass 15 times as large as the science payloads on the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, according to NASA. Some of the tools are the first of their kind on Mars, such as a laser-firing instrument for checking elemental composition of rocks from a distance.
The rover will use a drill and scoop at the end of its robotic arm to gather soil and powdered samples of rock interiors, then sieve and parcel out these samples into analytical laboratory instruments inside the rover, NASA said.
The Mars Science Laboratory, the formal name of the mission deploying the Curiosity rover, was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida on Nov. 26, 2011. After Curiosity, the only planned U.S. mission to Mars is an atmospheric orbiter meant to launch next year.
Extraordinary efforts were needed for the landing because the rover weighs one ton, and the thin Martian atmosphere offers little friction to slow down a spacecraft. Curiosity had to go from 13,000 mph to zero in seven minutes, unfurling a parachute, then firing rockets to brake. In a Hollywood-style finish, cables delicately lowered it to the ground at 2 mph.
At the end of what NASA called “seven minutes of terror,” the vehicle settled into place almost perfectly flat in the crater it was aiming for.
“We have ended one phase of the mission much to our enjoyment,” mission manager Mike Watkins said. “But another part has just begun.”
The nuclear-powered Curiosity will dig into the Martian surface to analyze what’s there and hunt for some of the molecular building blocks of life, including carbon.
It won’t start moving for a couple of weeks, because all the systems on the $2.5 billion rover have to be checked out. Color photos and panoramas will start coming in the next few days.
But first NASA had to use tiny cameras designed to spot hazards in front of Curiosity’s wheels. So early images of gravel and shadows abounded. The pictures were fuzzy, but scientists were delighted.
“A New Mars”
The photos show “a new Mars we have never seen before,” Watkins said. “So every one of those pictures is the most beautiful picture I have ever seen.”
In one of the photos from the close-to-the-ground hazard cameras, if you squinted and looked the right way, you could see “a silhouette of Mount Sharp in the setting sun,” said an excited John Grotzinger, chief mission scientist from the California Institute of Technology.
A high-resolution camera on the orbiting 7-year-old Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, flying 211 miles directly above the plummeting Curiosity, snapped a photo of the rover dangling from its parachute about a minute from touchdown. The parachute’s design can be made out in the photo.
“It’s just mind-boggling to me,” said Miguel San Martin, chief engineer for the landing team.
Curiosity is the heaviest piece of machinery NASA has landed on Mars, and the success gave the space agency confidence that it can unload equipment that astronauts may need in a future manned trip to the red planet.
The landing technique was hatched in 1999 in the wake of devastating back-to-back Mars spacecraft losses. Back then, engineers had no clue how to land super-heavy spacecraft. They brainstormed different possibilities, consulting Apollo-era engineers and pilots of heavy-lift helicopters.
“Engineering at Its Finest”
“I think its engineering at its finest. What engineers do is they make the impossible possible,” Braun, the Georgia Tech Professor, said. “This thing is elegant. People say it looks crazy. Each system was designed for a very specific function.”
Because of budget constraints, NASA canceled its joint U.S.-European missions to Mars, scheduled for 2016 and 2018.
“When’s the next lander on Mars? The answer to that is nobody knows,” Bolden said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
But if Curiosity finds something interesting, he said, it could spur the public and Congress to provide more money for more Martian exploration. No matter what, he said, Curiosity’s mission will help NASA as it tries to send astronauts to Mars by the mid-2030s.
(The Associated Press and Bloomberg news contributed to this report.)