What made Curiosity's Mars landing a 'miracle?'
NASA scientists credited engineering for Sunday's successful Mars landing. Rough-cut footage sent back to Earth from Curiosity's camera depicts the rover's descent, while other new photos show Mars' Mount Sharp.
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With the late-afternoon sun slipping behind the crater's rim, Curiosity relayed six more sample pictures and the results of initial health checks of some of its 10 scientific instruments before shutting down for the Martian night.Skip to next paragraph
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Additional photos taken by Curiosity were relayed hours later, including a batch of 200-plus images snapped at nearly four fames per second by the craft's bottom-mounted camera as it was lowered to the ground by parachute, rocket pack and sky crane. They were assembled by NASA into a rough-cut clip of moving footage showing the rover's descent from its own perspective, starting from the ejection of its heat shield.
Landing zone of intrigue
Curiosity touched down about 6.2 miles (10 km) from the foot of Mount Sharp, a monstrous formation of sedimentary rock that rises like a stack of cards three miles (5 km) from the floor of Gale Crater. Higher from base to summit than California's Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the continental United States, Mount Sharp crests above the northern rim of the crater.
An image of the mountain in the distance was captured by one of the rover's front-mounted hazard cameras, a flat, gravel-strewn plain in the foreground and the vehicle casting a silhouetted image on the ground.
The picture reveals that Curiosity landed virtually face-to-face with the mountain, with no obstacles between the two. A separate photo shot in the opposite direction shows the northwestern rim of the crater.
Scientists believe Mount Sharp may have formed from the remains of sediment that once completely filled the basin, offering a potentially valuable geologic record of the history of Mars, the planet most similar to Earth.
For that reason, it is a key focus of interest for Curiosity scientists looking for evidence of Martian habitats that may have supported microbial life. It may be months, however, before Curiosity heads over to Mount Sharp.
As project manager Pete Theisinger put it, "We have a priceless asset and we're not going to screw it up."
After a flawless landing, the mission's surface phase was starting out as apparently trouble-free.
Asked at an afternoon briefing if anything had yet gone wrong, mission manager Jennifer Trosper replied simply, "No."
"There are an awful lot of things that have to continue to go right," she added. "There's a lot ahead of us, but so far we're just ecstatic about the performance of the vehicle."
The rover comes equipped with an array of sophisticated instruments capable of analyzing samples of soil, rocks and atmosphere on the spot and beaming results back to Earth.
One is a laser gun that can zap a rock from 23 feet (7 meters) away to create a spark whose spectral image is analyzed by a special telescope to discern the mineral's chemical composition.
Among Curiosity's first tasks will be to chemically analyze the soil near its landing site.
"We're on gravel plain of Mars, a somewhat familiar scene," Grotzinger said, noting that the gravel seemed to be quite uniform in size. "We're a complex spacecraft, and simple geology is a good thing to start off with."
Scientists are also eager to explore rocks and pebbles that appear to have been transported by flowing water to a fan-shaped region near the landing site.
On Monday, the rover was expected to unfurl its dish-shaped antenna so it could better communicate directly with Earth.
(Editing by Eric Walsh and Stacey Joyce)