NASA followed up its picture-perfect landing of a plutonium-powered rover Sunday night with a picture of the balletic Mars landing — as well as some well-earned self-congratulation about what the accomplishment says about NASA’s ingenuity.
“There are many out in the community who say NASA has lost its way, that we don’t know how to explore — we’ve lost our moxie,” John M. Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s science mission directorate, said at a post-landing news conference, where beaming members of the landing team, all clad in blue polo shirts, crammed in next to the reporters. “I want you to look around tonight, at those folks with the blue shirts and think about what we’ve achieved.”
That achievement, in the early hours of Monday morning Eastern time, was indeed dramatic: with the eyes of the world watching, the car-size craft called Curiosity was lowered at the end of 25-foot cables from a hovering rocket stage, successfully touching down on a gravelly Martian plain.
For the world of science, it was the second slam-dunk this summer — the first one being the announcement last month that the Higgs boson, a long-sought particle theorized by physicists, had likely been found. But while the focus of high-energy physics world has shifted overseas to CERN, the European laboratory, the United States remains the center of the universe for space, ahead of Russia, Europe and China, and for NASA, it was a chance to parry accusations of being slow, bloated and rudderless.
“If anybody has been harboring doubts about the status of U.S. leadership in space,” John P. Holdren, the president’s science adviser, said at the news conference, “well, there’s a one-ton automobile-size piece of American ingenuity. And it’s sitting on the surface of Mars right now.”
Now that it has reached Mars, Curiosity ushers in a new era of exploration that could turn up evidence that the Red Planet once had the necessary ingredients for life — or might even still harbor life today. Far larger than earlier rovers, Curiosity is packed with the most sophisticated movable laboratory that has ever been sent to another planet. It is to spend at least two years examining rocks within the 96-mile crater it landed in, looking for carbon-based molecules and other evidence that early Mars had conditions friendly for life.
On Monday, NASA released a photograph taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, showing Curiosity still encased in the descent capsule as it sailed under a parachute 210 miles below.
“You can see the lines on the parachute,” said Sarah Milkovich, a NASA scientist who works with the orbiter camera.
NASA officials were working to give Dr. Holdren a framed print of the photograph to show President Obama.
Only one other country, the Soviet Union, has successfully landed anything on Mars, and that spacecraft, Mars 3 in 1971, fell silent shortly after landing. So far, this rover appears to be healthy.
“There’s a lot ahead of us, but so far we are just ecstatic about the performance of the vehicle,” said Jennifer Trosper, one of the mission managers.As the spacecraft sped toward its destination on Sunday, the pull of Mars’s gravity accelerating it to more than 13,000 miles per hour, officials tried to tamp down concerns that a crash would entirely derail future plans.
“A failure is a setback,” said Doug McCuistion, the Mars exploration program director. “It’s not a disaster.”
The Curiosity landing seemed particularly risky. Engineers chose not to use the tried-and-true systems used in the six previous successful landings, neither the landing legs of the Viking missions in 1976 nor the cocoons of air bags that cushioned the two rovers that NASA placed on Mars in 2004. Those approaches, they said, would not work for a one-ton vehicle.
Instead, for the final landing step, they came up with what they called the sky crane maneuver. The rover would be gently winched to the surface from a hovering rocket stage.
As the drama of the landing unfolded, each step proceeded without flaw. The capsule entered the atmosphere at the appointed time, with thrusters guiding it toward the crater. The parachute deployed. Then the rover and rocket stage dropped away from the parachute and began a powered descent toward the surface, and the sky crane maneuver worked as designed.
“Touchdown confirmed,” Allen Chen, an engineer in the control room here, said at 10:32 p.m. Sunday. “We’re safe on Mars.” The room erupted with cheers, hugs, handshakes and high-fives.
Two minutes later, the first image popped onto video screens — a grainy, 64-pixel-by-64-pixel black-and-white image that showed one of the rover’s wheels and the Martian horizon. A few minutes later, a clearer version appeared, then an image from the other side of the rover.
“That’s the shadow of the Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars,” Robert Manning, the chief engineer for the project, gushed.
More photos followed. One image showed the rover’s destination, a three-mile-high mound at the center of the crater informally known as Mount Sharp.
NASA also released a series of photographs that the rover snapped as it descended, showing the heat shield falling away and later a plume of dust kicked up by the rocket engines.
Over the first week, Curiosity is to deploy its main antenna, raise a mast containing cameras, a rock-vaporizing laser and other instruments, and take its first panoramic shot of its surroundings. NASA will spend the first weeks checking out Curiosity before embarking on the first drive.
The successful landing helps wash away the mission’s troubled beginnings. Originally it was to cost $1.6 billion and was scheduled to launch in fall 2009, but technical hurdles and cost overruns led NASA to wait more than two years for the next time that Mars and Earth lined up in the proper positions. The project’s cost will now be $2.5 billion.
Charles Elachi, director of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which operates Curiosity and many other planetary missions, said it was well worth the money and compared the night’s exhilaration to an adventure movie.
“This movie cost you less than seven bucks per American citizen, and look at the excitement we got,” Dr. Elachi exulted.
Even at the late hour, NASA’s Web sites collapsed as throngs of people across the Internet tried to look at the new Mars photos.
The New York Times