At 10:32 p.m. Sunday, Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer Al Chen called out the news to dozens of workers hunched over monitors full of data in JPL's Mission Control center: “Touchdown confirmed. We're safe on Mars.”
Cheers erupted and hugs were exchanged among the sea of engineers and scientists who have worked on NASA's largest and most ambitious rover yet — Curiosity. After years of work, weeks of anxiety and “seven minutes of terror” as the craft made its autonomous descent, the rover survived a complex landing 154 million miles away, using a supersonic parachute and rocket-powered “sky crane.”
Minutes later, grainy black-and-white photos appeared on monitors at the JPL campus, showing the 1-ton rover's shadow and a wheel firmly planted on Martian soil.
“That picture says it all for me,” said Adam Steltzner, who led the intense landing operation, as he gazed at one of Curiosity's first images. “It's really beautiful.”
Steltzner became emotional as he considered the unified effort of the thousands of people who worked on the project.
“In my life, I will be satisfied if this is the greatest thing that I have ever given,” he said. “There is a new picture of a new place on Mars. And for me, at least, that's the big payoff.”
Basking in the afterglow of the successful landing, scientists on Monday signaled that the excitement might slow down for a while. Before Curiosity sets out on its two-year exploration of the Martian surface to discover how the planet evolved and whether it ever supported life, scientists will spend weeks updating software and ensuring that all systems are go.
The mission, said project scientist John Grotzinger, “is about patience.”
More than 5,000 scientists and engineers around the world worked on the Mars Science Laboratory, with the heart of the work done by a group of roughly 300 people at JPL, which is managed by Caltech.
The craft carrying Curiosity launched Nov. 26, 2011, traveling 352 million miles in the indirect route plotted by engineers to the rover's destination — the Gale Crater on Mars. The complex landing sequence, dubbed “the seven minutes of terror,” involved slowing the spacecraft from a speed of 13,000 mph when it entered the Martian atmosphere to less than 2 mph by using a 100-pound supersonic parachute and a rocket-powered “sky crane” that gently lowered the rover to the ground.
Engineers showed confidence in the mission all weekend, forgoing several opportunities to adjust the spacecraft's path before landing.
The rover and its bevy of scientific instruments appear healthy, said Mike Watkins, system manager for the mission.
“I think we all believed it would land successfully, but we were worried,” he said.
On Monday, JPL engineers confirmed that Curiosity landed in a flat area within the crater, about two kilometers east of the spot the team chose after years of debate. Photos snapped on the first day showed a clear view of Mt. Sharp — a 3.4-mile-high mountain named after Caltech geologist Robert Phillip Sharp — that the rover eventually will climb.
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