Monday, August 06, 2012

Curiosity lands successfully: Video of 'seven minutes of terror,' first images

Curiosity can start killing the cat now. The lander portion of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) has descended to Mars, pulling off a challenging, unprecedented and totally programmed move: it was dropped down to the surface of the Red Planet on cables.

Everything in the landing had to go off precisely. NASA even called the landing sequence “seven minutes of terror.” To pull it off required the largest supersonic parachute ever deployed in space, a “sky crane” and 76 pyrotechnic explosions.

Adam Steltzner, a leader of the landing team, said that 75 would not have been good enough. If any one of those pyrotechnic explosions did not go off as expected, “we [and Curiosity] die.”

Curiosity's primary mission is expected to last for at least one Martian year, close to two Earth years (687 Earth days).

The landing had been scheduled for 10:31 p.m. PDT, and it came off almost exactly on time. NASA received confirmation of Curiosity's landing at 10:32 p.m. Just moments afterward, Curiosity sent back the first grainy black-and-white image from its landing site in Gale Crater.

The first images came from Curiosity's hazcams, or hazard avoidance cameras, which are positioned on the lower front and back of Curiosity.

Gale Crater was selected from a list of 60 possible landing sites. NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) selected the create, located just south of the Red Planet's equator, largely because of an enormous mountain in its center. Named Mt. Sharp in honor of noted Caltech geologist Robert Phillip Sharp, the mountain is three miles high, which is taller than any mountain in the “lower 48” states.

Gale Crater was created when a meteor struck Mars 3 billion years ago.

The video of the "peanuts moment" that took place at NASA is embedded. These critical events in missions always begin with peanuts being passed out for good luck. The practice apparently began after the first successful Ranger mission to land on the moon, which coincided with a JPL team member eating peanuts. Since then, it's become a tradition.

Watch it unfold, and the denouement, when cheers and high-fives erupted. A slideshow of images can be viewed, here.

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