After a 36-week, 154-million-mile journey capped by a highly complex but flawlessly executed landing sequence, the rover Curiosity spent its first full day on Mars today at the dawn of a two-year $2.5 billion mission designed to determine if the Red Planet ever supported life and if it can do so in the future.
With excitement from Sunday night’s successful landing still lingering in the air at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, mission managers were getting down to the work of getting the rover ramped up for its long job ahead.
“We have ended one phase of the mission, much to our enjoyment and to the joy of a lot of folks here in the audience on our own team, but another part has just begun,” one of the mission managers, Michael Watkins, told reporters at JPL in Pasadena.
JPL scientists released a photo taken by another NASA Mars exploration vehicle–the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter–that captured Curiosity floating down to the Mars surface. The photo was taken from 211 miles away.
“Guess you could consider us the closest thing to paparazzi on Mars,” said Sarah Milkovich, a JPL scientist who works with the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. “We definitely caught NASA’s newest celebrity in the act.”
Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge, from where the mission is being run, cheered and hugged each other when it was announced that Curiosity landed at 10:32 p.m. Pacific time Sunday near the foot of a mountain three miles tall and 96 miles in diameter inside Mars’ Gale Crater.
“Today, the wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze the trail for human footprints on Mars,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “Curiosity, the most sophisticated rover ever built, is now on the surface of the Red Planet, where it will seek to answer age-old questions about whether life ever existed on Mars–or if the planet can sustain life in the future.”
Curiosity soon sent back its first picture, a wide-angle scene of rocky ground, then a clearer version of the same, followed by an image from the other side of the rover–a plutonium-powered laboratory on six wheels that weighs a ton and is the size of a small car.
The rover’s primary mission today will be raising its high-gain antenna, which will enable better communication with JPL scientists. Mission managers will also be assessing the status of the rover’s instruments.
But the Rover’s first foray from its landing site will not take place until next month; no soil examination is to take place until the middle of September at the earliest, and no rock drilling will occur before October.
Curiosity is billed as the most scientifically advanced rover ever sent to another planet. It carries 10 science instruments with a total mass 15 times as large as the science equipment on the previous Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. It is the first rover to carry a laser-firing instrument designed to check the composition of rocks. It is also equipped with a drill and scoop to pick up soil samples that can be analyzed on the spot inside the rover.