Monday, August 6, 2012

NASA Mars Curiosity Rover Has Landed, Beams Back Pictures

PASADENA, Calfiornia -- NASA's most advanced Mars rover Curiosity has landed on the Red Planet. The one-ton rover, hanging by ropes from a rocket backpack, touched down onto Mars Sunday to end a 36-week flight and begin a two-year investigation. 

The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft that carried Curiosity succeeded in every step of the most complex landing ever attempted on Mars, including the final severing of the bridle cords and flyaway maneuver of the rocket backpack. 

"Today, the wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze the trail for human footprints on Mars. Curiosity, the most sophisticated rover ever built, is now on the surface of the Red Planet, where it will seek to answer age-old questions about whether life ever existed on Mars -- or if the planet can sustain life in the future," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "This is an amazing achievement, made possible by a team of scientists and engineers from around the world and led by the extraordinary men and women of NASA and our Jet Propulsion Laboratory. President Obama has laid out a bold vision for sending humans to Mars in the mid-2030's, and today's landing marks a significant step toward achieving this goal." 

Curiosity landed at 10:32 p.m. Aug. 5, PDT, (1:32 a.m. EDT Aug. 6) near the foot of a mountain three miles tall and 96 miles in diameter inside Gale Crater. During a nearly two-year prime mission, the rover will investigate whether the region ever offered conditions favorable for microbial life. 

"The Seven Minutes of Terror has turned into the Seven Minutes of Triumph," said NASA Associate Administrator for Science John Grunsfeld. "My immense joy in the success of this mission is matched only by overwhelming pride I feel for the women and men of the mission's team." 

Curiosity 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. 

 "Our Curiosity is talking to us from the surface of Mars," said MSL Project Manager Peter Theisinger of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "The landing takes us past the most hazardous moments for this project, and begins a new and exciting mission to pursue its scientific objectives." 

Confirmation of Curiosity's successful landing came in communications relayed by NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter and received by the Canberra, Australia, antenna station of NASA's Deep Space Network.

About two hours after landing on Mars and beaming back its first image, NASA's Curiosity rover transmitted a higher-resolution image of its new Martian home, Gale Crater. Mission Control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., received the image, taken by one of the vehicle's lower-fidelity, black-and-white Hazard Avoidance Cameras - or Hazcams. 

"Curiosity's landing site is beginning to come into focus," said John Grotzinger, project manager of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "In the image, we are looking to the northwest. What you see on the horizon is the rim of Gale Crater. In the foreground, you can see a gravel field. The question is, where does this gravel come from? It is the first of what will be many scientific questions to come from our new home on Mars." 

While the image is twice as big in pixel size as the first images beamed down from the rover, they are only half the size of full-resolution Hazcam images. During future mission operations, these images will be used by the mission's navigators and rover drivers to help plan the vehicle's next drive. Other cameras aboard Curiosity, with color capability and much higher resolution, are expected to be sent back to Earth over the next several days. 

Curiosity carries 10 science instruments with a total mass 15 times as large as the science payloads on the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. 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. 

To handle this science toolkit, Curiosity is twice as long and five times as heavy as Spirit or Opportunity. The Gale Crater landing site places the rover within driving distance of layers of the crater's interior mountain. Observations from orbit have identified clay and sulfate minerals in the lower layers, indicating a wet history.

IMAGE ABOVE:  This is one of the first images taken by NASA's Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars the evening of Aug. 5 PDT (morning of Aug. 6 EDT). It was taken through a "fisheye" wide-angle lens on the left "eye" of a stereo pair of Hazard-Avoidance cameras on the left-rear side of the rover. The image is one-half of full resolution. The clear dust cover that protected the camera during landing has been sprung open. Part of the spring that released the dust cover can be seen at the bottom right, near the rover's wheel.

On the top left, part of the rover's power supply is visible.

Some dust appears on the lens even with the dust cover off.

The cameras are looking directly into the sun, so the top of the image is saturated. Looking straight into the sun does not harm the cameras. The lines across the top are an artifact called "blooming" that occurs in the camera's detector because of the saturation.

As planned, the rover's early engineering images are lower resolution. Larger color images from other cameras are expected later in the week when the rover's mast, carrying high-resolution cameras, is deployed. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Spectators watch the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Atlas V launch of the Mars Curiosity mission from the nearby Space Coast Art Festival in Cocoa Beach Florida on November 26, 2011. Brevard Times / File