What a ride! Talk about mission impossible! How many of us really believed that it would go off without a hitch? Confession: not me. I wanted it to; I had all my fingers and toes crossed, but geez, there was zero margin of error. ZERO. Only in Hollywood movies do ridiculously complicated eight-step plans work perfectly.
Make that Hollywood, and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. That was truly inspiring and joyful to watch. And as long as I’m making confessions, I’ll admit that when I heard, “Touchdown confirmed. We are safe on Mars!” and watched the entire control room erupt into shouting, weeping, hugging, overjoyed pandemonium, I got a bit sniffly.
Then, apparently before the scientists expected it, the first thumbnails (small 64 x 64 pixel images) came in from the newly landed Curiosity. “Thumbnails are complete. We’ve got thumbnails!” shouted a scientist, and the room erupted a second time. Seemingly seconds later, the higher resolution 256 pixel image arrived, and when it was splashed up on the main viewscreen, someone shouted, “It’s the wheel!” and it was pandemonium again.
That’s the image at the top of this post. Curiosity took it with its rear left Hazcam, one of four pairs of cameras used to detect hazardous obstacles (and to decide where to collect samples). It’s not exactly a spectacular photo, but it tells the scientists several valuable things. One, Curiosity has landed in a nice, flat area, exactly as planned. Two, the transparent camera covers did just what they were meant to do: protect the cameras from all of the dust blown up by the rockets during Curiosity’s final descent. You can see dust specks on the upper portion of the photo, where the light is making them obvious. (The covers will be popped off later, after the dust has settled.)
And three, the wheel is unfolded and in position, indicating that Curiosity landed on its feet.
But the best was yet to come: Curiosity sent a second image, this one from the front left Hazcam. It’s the shadow of Mars’ newest resident.
And that was when I had to wipe my eyes.
This is just the beginning. The action is still happening, fast and furious, and I’ll be glued to Curiosity’s Twitter feed for the next while. (Yes, our latest intrepid rover has a Twitter feed! Which might be the one thing that will finally convince me to create my own account.) Already a higher, 512-pixel image has been sent from the rear Hazcam, without the dust cover.
You can see the rim of Gale Crater off in the distance — fantastic! You can also see part of the spring that popped off the camera’s dust cover at bottom right, and part of Curiosity’s power supply at top left. The line across the top is a camera artifact from looking straight into the sun (and oversaturating the sensor).
This is still only half-resolution for the Hazcams, and once Curiosity raises its masthead, we’ll have access to full-color cameras and bigger images. That will be later this week.
While we’re waiting, here’s what surely will be the one of the most memorable tweets of this decade:
Well done, Curiosity! And congratulations to the EDL (Entry, Descent and Landing) team—you have pulled off the impossible.
A few items of further interest:
NPR interviewed Adam Steltzner, the head of the EDL team, and learned that he did not have the usual career track for top-notch space engineers. (Hint: his early career involved a bass guitar.)
NASA hasn’t yet put up video of the control room during the landing, but YouTube user masadaMOAR captured the magic moment from the NASA-TV broadcast and posted it.
Finally, the tweet from Curiosity that cracked me up, apparently in response to a follower wanting to know the communication time between the rover and Earth:
Courage and a sense of humor—I think I’m developing a crush.