'Curiosity' sends first images back to Earth after Mars landing
THE FIRST images from Mars were small, grey and grainy, but they verged on miraculous for the elated Nasa scientists, who hugged, cheered and high-fived on hearing they had pulled off the most daring landing yet attempted on another world.
The US space agency’s Curiosity rover touched down on Mars at 6.14am yesterday after an apparently perfect entry and descent dubbed the “seven minutes of terror” by Nasa staff.
The period referred to the anxious moments during which the spacecraft punched into the Martian atmosphere at 20,000km/h (13,000mph), performed a series of exquisite manoeuvres, and came to a standstill on the ground, all without human intervention.
In the event, the entry was swift and went without a glitch. In the final stage, the spacecraft fired up eight retrorockets to slow its descent, before its “sky crane” lowered the 900kg Curiosity rover to the ground on nylon ropes.
The conditions on Mars, where the wind can gust to 140km/h, were calm, and the rover touched down at 2.4km/h, more softly than expected. Seconds later, it beamed its first images back to Earth, the pictures taking almost 14 minutes at the speed of light to reach mission control in California.
The pictures, taken from a low-resolution camera, suggested the vehicle had touched down away from large rocks. In one image, one of the craft’s wheels was visible. In another, the rover cast a shadow over the floor of the Gale crater.
The images prompted whoops of delight from blue-shirted mission scientists who could barely believe the landing was so clean.
Speaking at a press conference an hour after Curiosity touched down, John Grunsfeld, a former astronaut and Nasa’s associate administrator for science, said: “Mars is hard and success is not guaranteed. There are many out in the community that say Nasa has lost its way, that we don’t know how to explore, that we’ve lost our moxie. I want you to look around tonight at all those folks in the blue shirts and think about what we’ve achieved. I think it’s fair to say Nasa knows how to explore, we’ve been exploring, and we’re on Mars.” – (Guardian service)