NASA’s rover, Curiosity, made a successful Monday landing on Mars, and the last 2 1/2 minutes of the nail-biting descent was captured on low-resolution video and is available for all to see.
If you’re thinking your cell phone could have made a better video, don’t worry, the full-resolution videos still need to be beamed back to Earth (yes, this is real life and not a Steven Spielberg movie), and chief NASA scientist, Michael Malin, promises they will be “exquisite.”
Curiosity is by no means the first rover to explore the Red Planet, but its descent was especially nerve-wracking for scientists because its one ton, car-like size makes it the heaviest piece of equipment NASA has ever landed on Mars. Clever engineering was required to ensure a safe landing for the rover as its massive size could have sent it plummeting through the thin Martian atmosphere as was evident in earlier failed Mars spacecraft landings in the 1990′s.
Also making it unique is the variety of instruments it has on board and, unlike previous Mars rovers, Curiosity was active throughout the entire seven minute descent instead of activating after landing.
Despite the engineering challenges, Curiosity managed to land gently in a crater, which was its exact point of target. Still, the anxiety scientists felt while watching the descent prompted them to dub the event “seven minutes of terror” as they undoubtedly had visions of the rover’s eight-month journey and the $2.5 billion spent on the project crashing into a pile of debris on the Martian surface.
Now that the terrifying landing is over, scientists are admiring the flurry of pictures collected from Curiosity’s on-board cameras. Images range from Martian sunsets, to silhouettes of Mount Sharp, to seemingly ordinary gravel around the rover’s landing gear and, although grainy, all are equally thrilling to mission manager, Mike Watkins, who said the photos show, “a new Mars we have never seen before. So every one of those pictures is the most beautiful picture I have ever seen.”
With all the excitement from NASA and the general public surrounding Curiosity’s landing, it’s hard to believe the mission is just getting underway. The rover will begin its real work in a couple weeks, after a thorough systems check, as it fulfills its mission of looking for the presence of the building blocks of life on the planet.