At 1:32 a.m. EDT on August 6, the control room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif., erupted in cheers at the announcement that the Curiosity rover had touched down safely on the surface of Mars. After two seconds of stunned silence, the late-night landing event at Goddard Space Flight Center was flooded with shouts, applause and more than a few teary eyes.
Following in the footsteps (or tire tracks) of Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity, Curiosity is the fourth rover to rest its wheels in Martian soil. This makes the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) the seventh successful Mars landing in human history.
This artist concept features NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a mobile robot for investigating Mars' past or present ability to sustain microbial life. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech) › Larger image
The rover’s daredevil landing relied on multiple new technologies, including the largest supersonic parachute ever constructed, dozens of rocket thrusters and a sky crane that lowered the rover 25 feet to the surface.
The entry, descent and landing (EDL) phase of Curiosity’s mission began when the MSL spacecraft reached the Martian atmosphere, about 78 miles (125 km) above the planet’s surface, and switched from manual control to powered flight. In the next seven minutes, the craft had to execute a series of highly complex automated maneuvers with precise timing and no room for error, popularized by the JPL video “Curiosity’s Seven Minutes of Terror.”
The nearly 300 event attendees at Goddard, including employees, local officials and members of the public, packed into the Visitor Center’s main auditorium to watch the landing stream, with overflow in a tent behind the building.
Goddard's Visitor Center hosted a few hundred guests on the evening of August 5 for live coverage of the Curiosity rover's landing.
As engineers and scientists on the ground waited 14 nail-biting minutes for Curiosity’s signal to return to Earth, attendees were glued to the monitors, every eye on the blue-shirted MSL team. (It’s said that if you want to know exactly how a mission goes, just watch the flight directors’ faces.)
When JPL announced Curiosity’s touchdown, the commotion at Goddard was deafening. The first thumbnail-sized images appeared to the sound of exuberant applause as attendees who had let their laptops and phones fall to the wayside logged back on to share the news.
While the MSL team exchanged hugs in the control room, Goddard event attendees began to trickle back into the main hall of the Visitor Center, where the evening’s activities continued. Attendees took photos with a full-sized replica of one of Curiosity’s wheels, asked a scientist questions about construction materials on the rover and Mars rock analogues, and used 3-D glasses to view images of the Martian surface from previous NASA missions. The star of the evening was the rover landing game on Xbox Kinect, where players took their own shot at landing Curiosity safely on the Martian surface.
This artist's concept shows the sky crane maneuver during the descent of NASA's Curiosity rover to the Martian surface. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech) › Larger image
A few dozen attendees stayed to watch the JPL press conference at 2:15 a.m. EDT. The triumphant MSL team entered the room to the sound of wild applause and the flash of cameras.
Curiosity won’t roll out immediately—first, engineers must conduct a series of tests to make sure the rover is on solid ground. Automated computer sequences will survey the surrounding environment and check that all systems are operational, from communications to image acquisition to scientific instrumentation. Mission controllers have also begun to deploy Curiosity’s multiple cameras, sending back its first color image on the morning of August 7.
Sometime soon, the team will put the pedal to the metal.