Curiosity is on Mars

Categories: Feature Stories Mars
This is the first image taken by NASA’s Curiosity rover, and the first close-up image ever taken of Mars’s Gale Crater. The dark area is the surface of Mars, the bright area the sky. One of Curiosity’s wheels can be seen in the lower right corner. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Pasadena, California
August 6, 2012

“Touchdown confirmed.”

With those words, at 10:32 pm PDT, JPL’s Allen Chen announced that NASA’s Curiosity rover had landed successfully on Mars.

There was a lot of cheering.

Several minutes later, the rover’s first image was received on Earth. The image, taken by Curiosity’s rear Hazard Avoidance Camera (Hazcam) before its dust cover was popped off, was blurry and showed little detail. But it showed enough – Mars’s surface, dark in the foreground; a bright sky; and in the lower right corner, one of Curiosity’s wheels – to verify that Curiosity was on the surface of Mars, that its initial post-landing sequence was proceeding as planned, and that its communication system was working properly.

There was more cheering. And high-fives.

That first image was followed by several more over the next few minutes, some taken by Curiosity’s front Hazcam. The front Hazcam images showed the shadow of the rover stretched out across the martian landscape.

And still more cheering. And more high-fives. And hugs.

“I think that is the best picture of Mars I’ve ever seen,” said John Grotzinger. Of course he’s biased. Grotzinger is the Project Scientist for Curiosity.

NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld, JPL Director Charles Elachi, MSL Project Manager Pete Theisinger, MSL Deputy Project Manager Richard Cook, MSL EDL Lead Adam Steltzner and MSL Project Scientist John Grotzinger celebrate Curiosity’s successful landing on Mars. Credit: Henry Bortman

The drama of entry, descent and landing is past. The spacecraft performed flawlessly. The sky crane was a success. But Curiosity still has a lot of work to do before it can begin its journey of exploration in Gale Crater, where it landed.

“This is a very, very complex spacecraft compared to what we’ve done before, and so because of that, we’ll go through this long checkout period,” to make sure all of Curiosity’s movable parts and scientific instruments are working properly, Grotzinger said. “We’re going to make sure that we’re firing on all cylinders before we blaze out across the plains there. But nested within those initial tests are going to be science observations.”

One of those observations, which will take place once Curiosity’s mast is deployed, will be the first high-resolution, color panorama of the view of Gale Crater from the landing site.

While the rover may go on a short drive within its first month on Mars, it could take as much as a year (an Earth year) for it to reach the base of Mount Sharp, a 3-mile-high mountain several miles from where Curiosity landed. Mount Sharp is a target of intense scientific interest. It contains a set of sedimentary layers believed to record the period of Mars’s history, billions of years ago, when the planet underwent the transition from a relatively warm, wet planet, to a dry, frozen one.

Curiosity casts its shadow across the floor of Gale Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

If Mars was once a warmer, wetter world, as many scientists believe it was, Mount Sharp’s lower layers will offer a detailed look at those early conditions. And as Mars’s water evaporated or was buried underground, Mount Sharp’s middle and upper layers will contain a record of those events.

But for the foreseeable future, Curiosity will be focused on its immediate neighborhood. “The place we landed on looks pretty interesting,” Grotzinger said. “We just don’t want to rush out of there without having studied it too well.”

“We’re in no hurry,” said Pete Theisinger, MSL Project Manager. “We now have … a priceless asset” on the surface of Mars. “Therefore we will take our time to understand its condition, and understand if there’s anything that happened during landing that we haven’t uncovered yet.” And then, he added, “with slow, deliberate, methodical pace, we’ll begin the science exploration.”