Video: NASA team ‘came back with the gold’

By Alan Boyle Science editor
NBC News
updated 8/6/2012 7:58:30 AM ET 2012-08-06T11:58:30

After eight years of planning and eight months of interplanetary travel, NASA's Mars Science Laboratory pulled off a touchdown of Super Bowl proportions, all by itself. It even sent pictures from the goal line.

The spacecraft plunged through Mars' atmosphere, fired up a rocket-powered platform and lowered the car-sized, 1-ton Curiosity rover to its landing spot in 96-mile-wide (154-kilometer-wide) Gale Crater. Then the platform flew off to its own crash landing, while Curiosity sent out a text message basically saying, "I made it!"

That message was relayed by the orbiting Mars Odyssey satellite back to Earth. A radio telescope in Australia picked up the message and sent it here to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. When the blips of data appeared on the screens at JPL's mission control, commentator Allen Chen announced the good news.

"Touchdown confirmed," he said. "We're safe on Mars."

The room erupted in cheers and hugs.

Image: Mars pictures
NASA TV
A display at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory shows two of the thumbnail pictures transmitted from the Curiosity rover on the surface of the Mars. The left photo shows the shadow of Curiosity, while a wheel is visible in the right photo.

Because of the light-travel time between Mars and Earth, the throngs of scientists and engineers — along with millions who were monitoring the action via television and the Internet — celebrated Curiosity's landing 14 minutes after it actually occurred.

Even the engineers who drew up the unprecedented plan for the landing admitted that it looked crazy. But the plan actually worked.

In the midst of the celebration, more good news came: "We have thumbnails!" Odyssey delivered pictures showing the view from hazard avoidance cameras mounted on the rover.

Super Bowl pride
The touchdown marked a $2.5 billion triumph for what Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters, called "the Super Bowl of planetary exploration." Curiosity's primary mission is scheduled to last one full Martian year, or almost two Earth years — but scientists hope the nuclear-powered rover will keep going for years longer than that.

The successful landing sparked a swell of American pride for the mission team as well as for NASA and the White House. The biggest heart-swelling moment came during a post-landing news conference, when the blue-shirted team behind Curiosity's entry, descent and landing marched through the packed auditorium and high-fived their leaders.

"EDL! EDL!" the flag-waving troop chanted, but it might as well have been "USA! USA!"

President Barack Obama's science adviser, John Holdren, said that if anyone had any doubts about American technological leadership, "there's a one-ton, car-sized piece of American ingenuity, and it's sitting on the surface of Mars right now, and it certainly should put any such doubts to rest."

Image: Mission control
NASA TV
Engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory hug each other after hearing of the Curiosity rover's successful landing on Mars on Sunday night.

Obama himself issued a late-night statement via Twitter: "Tonight, on planet Mars, the United States of America made history. I congratulate and thank all the men and women of NASA who made this remarkable accomplishment a reality."

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said the successful landing marked a significant step toward the Obama administration's vision of sending astronauts to Mars and its moons in the 2030s. "The wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze the trail for human footprints on Mars," Bolden told reporters.

Charles Elachi, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said Sunday night's spectacle was a bargain, even at $2.5 billion. "This movie cost you less than 7 bucks per American citizen," he said. Later, John Grotzinger, the mission's project scientist, quipped, "That's a movie I want to see."

Driving to a mountain
Curiosity is the biggest and most capable robotic laboratory ever sent to another celestial body: Its 10 scientific instruments are designed to study the chemistry of Mars' rocks, soil and atmosphere and determine whether the Red Planet had the right stuff to be habitable in ancient times.

The rover's prime target is a 3-mile-high (5-kilometer-high) mountain inside the crater, known as Aeolis Mons or Mount Sharp. The mountain's layers of rock could preserve billions of years' worth of geological history, shedding light on the planet's transition from its warmer, wetter past to its current cold, dry climate.

Some scientists think Curiosity could even detect the signs of present-day life, although NASA doesn't go that far.

Soon after the landing, engineers began activating the systems onboard the rover. It could take weeks to get everything up and running for the first drive. Grotzinger said the journey to Mount Sharp might require one Earth year, because scientists want to take their time studying Gale Crater's terrain. Pete Theisinger, the mission's project manager, seconded the sentiment for going slow: "We have a priceless asset, and we are not going to ... screw it up."

Theisinger recalled that he was on the job when NASA's Spirit and Opportunity rovers landed on the Red Planet in 2004. "I never thought I would ever say this, but this is better than that," he said. Spirit gave up the ghost two years ago, but Opportunity is still at work on the rim of a 14-mile-wide (23-kilometer-wide) crater called Endeavour.

Risky descent
The final phase of the Mars Science Laboratory's journey from Earth to Mars relied on technologies that had never been tried before in outer space — which is why it was called the "seven minutes of terror."

Seven minutes before landing, Mars Science Laboratory began its plunge through the planet's atmosphere at a speed of 13,200 mph (5,900 meters per second). It jettisoned two solid-tungsten weights, shifting the spacecraft's balance to become more like a wing. Small thrusters fired to put the craft through a series of "S" turns to adjust the trajectory.

The heat shield weathered temperatures ranging up to 3,800 degrees Fahrenheit (2,100 degrees Celsius). At an altitude of about 7 miles (11 kilometers), the spacecraft deployed its parachute, even while it was traveling at supersonic speeds.

First the heat shield dropped away. Then the parachute and the back shell flew off, leaving behind the rover and its rocket-powered "sky crane."

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The sky crane handled the final phase of the slowdown by firing eight retro rockets. It descended to a height of about 65 feet (20 meters) and lowered the rover to the surface on the end of three cables. When the rover hit the ground, the cables were cut loose, and the sky crane blasted itself away from the landing site.

Adam Steltzner, the engineer in charge of drawing up the landing plan, said 79 explosive devices had to go off in just the right sequence — otherwise, the landing would have almost certainly failed.

NASA went with the seemingly crazy system because the 1-ton Curiosity is the heaviest payload ever delivered to the Martian surface. That weight is too heavy for the airbag-cushioned system that was used for previous Mars rovers, and too unstable to put on a lander with legs, Steltzner said.

Before the landing, Steltzner said he and his team were "rationally confident" and "emotionally terrified."

After the landing, he said Curiosity seemed to be in good condition after an "extremely clean" descent. "It looks, at least to my eyeballs, that we landed on a nice flat spot. Beautiful, really beautiful," he said.

John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administrator for science, said "the 'seven minutes of terror' has turned into the seven minutes of triumph."

Running a relay
When Curiosity touched down, it was out of Earth's direct line of sight, so three orbiting probes — NASA's Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, as well as the European Space Agency's Mars Express — monitored the data being sent out by the spacecraft. However, only Odyssey was capable of relaying the data back immediately, using what's called a "bent pipe" communication mode.

The telemetry was picked up by a radio telescope in Canberra, Australia, that's part of NASA's Deep Space Network, and relayed to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Mission controllers had broken out their jars of good-luck peanuts and anxiously awaited the arrival of the signal at the appointed time of 10:32 p.m. PT Sunday (1:32 a.m. ET Monday).

TV cameras monitored the action as the data came in — allowing the whole world to see the wave of relief and celebration roll through the room. More than a dozen VIPs were among those watching from JPL's campus in Pasadena.

The guest list included Black Eyed Peas musician Will.I.Am,  and actors Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura on the original "Star Trek"), Morgan Freeman (from "Deep Impact" and "Through the Wormhole"), Wil Wheaton (Wesley Crusher on "Star Trek: Next Generation") and June Lockhart (from "Lost in Space" and "Lassie).

"What jollies!" Lockhart, 87, exclaimed during a quick visit to the JPL newsroom.

More about Mars:

An earlier version of this report included two incorrect metric conversions for distances. There have been various reports of the touchdown time, shifting between 10:32 and 10:39 p.m. PT, but JPL lists the official time as 10:32 p.m. PT.

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Explainer: 11 amazing things the Mars rover can do

  • The car-sized Curiosity rover is a 1-ton robotic beast that will take planetary exploration to the next level.

    Curiosity rover is the centerpiece of NASA's $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory. Its main goal is to assess whether the Red Planet is, or ever was, capable of supporting microbial life. The rover will employ 10 different science instruments to help it answer this question once it touches down on the Red Planet. Here's a brief rundown of these instruments (and one more on the rover's heat shield).

    — Mike Wall, Space.com

  • Mast Camera (MastCam)

    T.A. Dutch Slager / NASA / JPL-Caltech
    This view of the Curiosity rover's remote sensing mast shows the ChemCam in the white box at top, and the two cameras of the Mastcam system just below. Additional navigation cameras are placed farther outward from the Mastcam cameras.

    The MastCam is Curiosity's workhorse imaging tool. It will capture high-resolution color pictures and video of the Martian landscape, which scientists will study and laypeople will gawk at.

    MastCam consists of two camera systems mounted on a mast that rises above Curiosity's main body, so the instrument will have a good view of the Red Planet environment as the rover chugs through it. MastCam images will also help the mission team drive and operate Curiosity. (Photos of NASA's Curiosity Rover)

  • Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI)

    NASA / JPL-Caltech
    The Curiosity rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager will acquire color close-up images of rocks and surface materials. A Swiss Army knife is shown for scale.

    MAHLI will function much like a high-powered magnifying glass, allowing Earthbound scientists to get up-close looks at Martian rocks and soil. The instrument will take color pictures of features as tiny as 12.5 microns — smaller than the width of a human hair.

    MAHLI sits on the end of Curiosity's five-jointed, 7-foot (2.1-meter) robotic arm, which is itself a marvel of engineering. So mission scientists will be able to point their high-tech hand lens pretty much wherever they want.

  • Mars Descent Imager (MARDI)

    NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS
    The Mars Descent Imager is flying on the Curiosity rover. A Swiss Army knife is included in the picture for purposes of showing scale.

    MARDI, a small camera located on Curiosity's main body, will record video of the rover's descent to the Martian surface (which will be accomplished with the help of a hovering, rocket-powered sky crane). (Video: Curiosity's Peculiar Landing)

    MARDI will click on a mile or two above the ground, as soon as Curiosity jettisons its heat shield. The instrument will then take video at five frames per second until the rover touches down. The footage will help the MSL team plan Curiosity's Red Planet rovings, and it should also provide information about the geological context of the landing site, the 100-mile-wide (160-km) Gale Crater.

  • Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM)

    NASA / JPL-Caltech
    This illustration of the mechanical configuration of the SAM shows the three instruments and several elements of the Chemical Separation and Processing Laboratory.

    SAM is the heart of Curiosity; at 83 pounds (38 kilograms), it makes up about half of the rover's science payload.

    SAM is actually a suite of three separate instruments — a mass spectrometer, a gas chromatograph and a laser spectrometer. These instruments will search for carbon-containing compounds, the building blocks of life as we know it. They will also look for other elements associated with life on Earth, such as hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen.

    The SAM instrument suite is located in Curiosity's main body. The rover's robotic arm will drop samples into SAM via an inlet on the rover's exterior. Some of these samples will come from the interior of rocks, powder bored out by a 2-inch (5-centimeter) drill situated at the end of the arm.

    None of Curiosity's predecessors could get deep into Martian rocks, so scientists are excited about the drill.

    "For a geologist that studies rocks, there's nothing better than getting inside," said MSL deputy project scientist Joy Crisp, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

  • Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin)

    NASA / JPL-Caltech
    Clean-room workers carefully steer the hoisted CheMin instrument toward its installation into the Curiosity rover.

    CheMin will identify different types of minerals on Mars and quantify their abundance, which will help scientists better understand past environmental conditions on the Red Planet.

    Like SAM, CheMin has an inlet on Curiosity's exterior to accept samples delivered by the rover's robotic arm. The instrument will shine a fine X-ray beam through the sample, identifying minerals' crystalline structures based on how the X-rays diffract.

    "This is like magic to us," Crisp told Space.com. X-ray diffraction is a leading diagnostic technique for Earthbound geologists, she explained, but it hasn't made it to Mars yet. So CheMin should help Curiosity provide more definitive mineral characterizations than previous Mars rovers such as Spirit and Opportunity have been able to achieve.

  • Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam)

    NASA / JPL-Caltech
    An artist's conception shows the Curiosity rover's ChemCam firing its laser at Martian rock.

    For sheer coolness, it's tough to beat ChemCam. This instrument will fire a laser at Martian rocks from up to 30 feet (9 meters) away and analyze the composition of the vaporized bits.

    ChemCam will thus enable Curiosity to study rocks that are out of reach of its flexible robotic arm. It will also help the mission team determine from afar whether or not they want to send the rover over to investigate a particular landform.

    ChemCam is composed of several different parts. The laser sits on Curiosity's mast, along with a camera and a small telescope. Three spectrographs sit in the rover's body, connected to the mast components by fiber optics. The spectrographs will analyze the light emitted by excited electrons in the vaporized rock samples.

  • Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS)

    NASA / JPL-Caltech
    The sensor head for the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer is installed during testing. The head is 7.8 centimeters or about 3 inches tall.

    APXS, which sits at the end of Curiosity's arm, will measure the abundances of various chemical elements in Martian rocks and dirt.

    Curiosity will place the instrument in contact with samples of interest, and APXS will shoot out X-rays and helium nuclei. This barrage will knock electrons in the sample out of their orbits, causing a release of X-rays. Scientists will be able to identify elements based on the characteristic energies of these emitted X-rays.

    Spirit and Opportunity were outfitted with a previous version of APXS and used the instrument to help elucidate the prominent role water has played in shaping the Martian landscape. (Latest Mars Photos From Spirit and Opportunity)

  • Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN)

    NASA / JPL-Caltech / Roscosmos
    This diagram shows how the Detector of Albedo Neutrons could be used to sense the presence of subsurface water on Mars.

    DAN, located near the back of Curiosity's main body, will help the rover search for ice and water-logged minerals beneath the Martian surface.

    The instrument will fire beams of neutrons at the ground, then note the speed at which these particles travel when they bounce back. Hydrogen atoms tend to slow neutrons down, so an abundance of sluggish neutrons would signal underground water or ice.

    DAN should be able to map out water concentrations as low as 0.1 percent at depths up to 6 feet (2 m).

  • Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD)

    NASA / JPL-Caltech
    The RAD instrument is mounted just below the Curiosity rover's top deck, with the charged particle telescope pointing toward the zenith.

    The toaster-size RAD is designed specifically to help prepare for future human exploration of Mars. The instrument will measure and identify high-energy radiation of all types on the Red Planet, from fast-moving protons to gamma rays.

    RAD's observations will allow scientists to determine just how much radiation an astronaut would be exposed to on Mars. This information could also help researchers understand how much of a hurdle Mars' radiation environment might have posed to the origin and evolution of life on the Red Planet.

  • Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS)

    NASA
    This diagram shows the location of the REMS booms on the rover's mast, plus detailed views showing the location of wind, humidity and temperature sensors.

    This tool, which sits partway up Curiosity's mast, is a Martian weather station. REMS will measure atmospheric pressure, humidity, wind speed and direction, air temperature, ground temperature and ultraviolet radiation.

    All of this information will be integrated into daily and seasonal reports, allowing scientists to get a detailed look at the Martian environment.

  • MSL Entry, Descent and Landing Instrumentation (MEDLI)

    Lockheed Martin
    The MEDLI instrument package is the black box in the middle left of this photo, which shows the heatshield for the Mars Science Laboratory.

    MEDLI isn't one of Curiosity's 10 instruments, since it was built into the heat shield that protected the rover during its descent through the Martian atmosphere. But it's worth a few words here.

    MEDLI measured the temperatures and pressures that the heat shield experienced as the MSL spacecraft streaked through the Martian sky. This information can tell engineers how well the heat shield, and their models of the spacecraft's trajectory, performed.

    Researchers will use MEDLI data to improve designs for future Mars-bound spacecraft.

    You can follow Space.com senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter: @michaeldwall. Follow Space.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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