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NASA's $2.5 billion Mars rover just taking it easy for now

After traveling some 350 million miles and executing a flawless supersonic-parachute-and-sky-crane-assisted touchdown on the Red Planet, NASA's Curiosity Mars rover is just kicking back and relaxing for a few days. 

By Mike WallSPACE.com / August 13, 2012

The red X marks where NASA's Curiosity's Mars rover landed on Aug. 5, 2012 — about 1.5 miles east of the spot it was targeting. The dark blue ellipse at right shows the predicted landing sites for Curiosity's tungsten ballast (blue dots) and their actual impact spots (arrows). The dark streak cutting diagonally across the image's center is a stretch of sand dunes.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/MSSS

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NASA's Mars rover Curiosity marks a full week on the Red Planet today (Aug. 13), and it's celebrating with a little rest and relaxation.

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The 1-ton rover began beaming home photos and testing out its 10 science instruments almost immediately after its dramatic landing on Mars on the night of Aug. 5. But Curiosity is now in the middle of a four-day quiescent period, transitioning from landing software to programs optimized for surface operations.

The new software package "has a lot of great stuff that the science team wants, that the surface team wants, in order to enable this fantastic mission," Curiosity lead flight software engineer Ben Cichy, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory(JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., told reporters Friday (Aug. 10). "That's why we're willing to spend some time here doing the install." 

A lot to be proud of

Though the $2.5 billion Curiosity has been on the Red Planet for just a few days, it already has a lot to be proud of. For starters, it exectued a daring and unprecedented landing pretty much flawlessly. [Amazing Mars Rover Curiosity Landing: Best Moments]

In the last phase of Curiosity's entry, descent and landing (EDL) sequence, a rocket-powered sky crane lowered the six-wheeled robot to the floor of Mars' Gale Crater on cables, then flew off and crash-landed intentionally about 2,000 feet (600 meters) away. Such a maneuver had never been tried before on another planet.

Curiosity also employed a guided-entry system, enabling the rover to touch down much more precisely than any Red Planet robot had before. Preliminary analyses show that the rover missed its mark — dead center of its 4-by-12-mile (7 by 19 kilometer) landing ellipse — by just 1.5 miles or so (2.4 km), researchers said.

"Obviously, we had a great day on Mars on Sunday," said EDL operations lead Allen Chen of JPL. 

And the rover's equipment is working very well on the surface so far, researchers said. Mission scientists and engineers have yet to encounter a major issue with any of Curiosity's 17 cameras or 10 science instruments.

That high-tech gear has already been put to use. Curiosity has sent lots of images back to its handlers, including footage of its harrowing descent and a color panorama of its landing site. And the rover's Radiation Assessment Detector instrument took a 3 1/2-hour measurement Wednesday (Aug. 8), gathering data that could help NASA plan for future manned missions to the Red Planet.

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