Video from rover looks down on Mars during landing

/ Source: NBC News and news services

NASA on Monday unveiled a low-resolution, color video from its Curiosity rover that shows what travelers could see if they were riding along for the last couple of minutes of the craft's descent to Mars.

The recording begins with the protective heat shield falling away, and ends with dust being kicked up as the rover is lowered by cables inside an ancient crater.

Curiosity was successfully deposited on the floor of Gale Crater on Sunday night, using a sky-crane procedure that had never been tried before in a space mission. Since then, the rover has returned a flood of pictures, including black-and-white views of the 3-mile-high (5-kilometer-high) mountain it's heading for.

Still more pictures will be on the way, including a panorama of Curiosity's surroundings and a higher-resolution version of the video from Curiosity's Mars Descent Imager, also known as MARDI.

Oohs and ahhs
Onlookers oohed and ahhed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory as the scientist in charge of the camera, Michael Malin, showed off the low-res version on Monday afternoon. Because of the rover's current limitations on bandwidth, it sent back only thumbnail versions of the images. The higher-resolution pictures are being stored for later transmission.

Malin compared the sequence to "that grainy onboard film from Apollo 11, when they were about to land on the moon."

The MARDI camera is mounted on the rover's chassis, looking down toward the ground. The video was assembled from 297 still images taken during the last two and a half minutes of Curiosity's flight.

The early pictures show the Mars Science Laboratory's heat shield falling away from the rover and disappearing into the Martian landscape. Later in the sequence, the exhaust from rockets on Curiosity's sky crane causes dust to billow up even as the crane was lowering the rover to the surface.

Malin said the pictures would come in handy for future operations on Mars. "These images will help the mission scientists interpret the rover's surroundings, the rover drivers in planning for future drives across the surface, as well as assist engineers in their design of forthcoming landing systems for Mars or other worlds," he said.

The Curiosity team compared the pictures with pre-existing orbital imagery to pinpoint the rover's position on Mars to an accuracy of "about a meter," Malin said. The coordinates are -4.5895 degrees S, 137.4417 E.

Virtually right on target
Curiosity, a roving laboratory the size of a compact car, landed virtually right on target late Sunday after an eight-month, 352-million-mile journey. It parked its six wheels about 4 miles (6 kilometers) from its ultimate science destination — a peak variously called Mount Sharp or Aeolis Mons, rising from the floor of Gale Crater near the equator.

A processed picture from a hazard avoidance camera on NASA's Curiosity rover shows the rover's shadow in the foreground, and the mountain known as Mount Sharp or Aeolis Mons in the background.
A view looking out from the rear of the rover, captured by one of Curiosity's hazard avoidance cameras, shows a wheel in the foreground and the rim of Gale Crater in the far background.

Extraordinary efforts were needed for the landing because the rover weighs one ton, and the thin Martian atmosphere offers little friction to slow a spacecraft down. Curiosity had to go from more than 13,000 mph to zero in seven minutes, unfurling a parachute, then firing rockets to brake. In a Hollywood-style finish, cables delicately lowered it to the ground at less than 2 mph (0.75 meters per second).

At the end of what NASA called "seven minutes of terror," the vehicle settled into place almost perfectly flat in the crater it was aiming for, just a little east of the target point.

"We have ended one phase of the mission, much to our enjoyment," mission manager Mike Watkins said. "But another part has just begun."

Pictures hint at wide vistas
The nuclear-powered Curiosity will dig into the Martian surface to analyze what's there and hunt for some of the molecular building blocks of life, including carbon. It won't start moving for a couple of weeks, because all the systems on the $2.5 billion rover have to be checked out. Color photos and panoramas will start coming in the next few days.

On the first day, NASA used tiny cameras designed to spot hazards in front of Curiosity's wheels — mostly showing nearby gravel and shadows, but also hints of the vistas beyond.

The photos show "a new Mars we have never seen before," Watkins said. "So every one of those pictures is the most beautiful picture I have ever seen."

One of the photos, from a hazard avoidance at the front of the rover, showed "a silhouette of Mount Sharp in the setting sun," said an excited John Grotzinger, chief mission scientist from the California Institute of Technology. Another camera, looking out from the rear, revealed the rim of Gale Crater, about 17.5 miles (28 kilometers) distant.

Meanwhile, a high-resolution camera on the orbiting 7-year-old Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, flying 211 miles (340 kilometers) directly above the plummeting Curiosity, snapped a photo of the rover dangling from its parachute about a minute from touchdown. The parachute's design can be made out in the photo.

"It's just mind-boggling to me," said Miguel San Martin, chief engineer for the landing team.

Success of the sky crane
Curiosity is the heaviest piece of machinery NASA has landed on Mars, and the sky crane's success gave the space agency confidence that it can unload equipment that astronauts may need in a future manned trip to the Red Planet.

The landing technique was hatched in 1999 in the wake of devastating back-to-back Mars spacecraft losses. Back then, engineers had no clue how to land super-heavy spacecraft. They brainstormed different possibilities, consulting Apollo-era engineers and pilots of heavy-lift helicopters.

"I think it's engineering at its finest. What engineers do is they make the impossible possible," said former NASA chief technologist Bobby Braun. "This thing is elegant. People say it looks crazy. Each system was designed for a very specific function."

Because of budget constraints, NASA canceled its joint U.S.-European missions to Mars, scheduled for 2016 and 2018.

"When's the next lander on Mars? The answer to that is nobody knows," Bolden said in an interview with The Associated Press recently.

But if Curiosity finds something interesting, he said, it could spur the public and Congress to provide more money for more Martian exploration. No matter what, he said, Curiosity's mission will help NASA as it tries to send astronauts to Mars by the mid-2030s.

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This report includes information from NBC News and The Associated Press.