NASA’S Mars Science Laboratory, began beaming back photos from the Red Planet yesterday, as scientists prepared to set it to work on a hunt for evidence that life may have existed off Earth.
• Curiosity robot designed to discover if Mars has supported life
• Robot was lowered to surface by a ‘sky crane’
Like an excited tourist let loose with a new camera – though in MSL’s case, it has 17 – the nuclear-powered rover snapped images of the rim of the previously unexplored Gale Crater, in which it landed during a harrowing touchdown whose success left Nasa basking in glory 154 million miles below.
Extraordinary imagery also recorded by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter flying 212 miles away from MSL showed the spacecraft – also known as
Curiosity – dropping to the surface on a parachute, six minutes into its flawlessly executed landing sequence, known as the Seven Minutes of Terror.
Speaking at mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, Nasa’s associate administrator for science, John Grunsfeld, said: “The Seven Minutes of Terror has turned into the Seven Minutes of Triumph.”
“Mars is hard and success isn’t guaranteed. There are many out in the community who say Nasa has lost its way, that we don’t know how to explore.
“I want you to think about what we have achieved. I think it’s fair to say that Nasa knows how to explore, we have been exploring, and we’re on Mars.
“This feat is something only the United States of America can do – and the rover was made in the USA.”
To the untrained eye, the first images of gravel and shadows –taken in black and white from Curiosity’s Hazard Avoidance Cameras mounted on the rear of the vehicle – may not have seemed the most glamorous of souvenir shots.
However, to the scientists and engineers who worked for eight years to design, test and build the vehicle, they represented true scientific and historic
Mission manager Mike Watkins said: “Every one of those pictures is the most beautiful picture I have ever seen. It’s representative of a new Mars we have never seen before.”
The images demonstrated the breathtaking precision of Curiosity’s landing – just one kilometre from the centre point of the 12km-wide ellipse that flight controllers had targeted.
After a 254-day journey, flight controllers ceremoniously handed over control of the vehicle to the engineers and scientists who will steer it on its two-year trek. By studying the geological history and chemical make-up of an area known to have once been rich in water, they will assess whether life in any form was ever a possibility on Mars, and whether it still might be.
News of Curiosity’s landing, signalled to Earth by way of a simple text-style message relayed by the Mars Odyssey and the Deep Space Network, saw mission controllers explode into celebration.
A post-landing press conference turned into a tumultuous scene as the entire team paraded around the auditorium waving flags, cheering and slapping high-fives.
Dr Charles Elachi, director of laboratory, said: “Here we had our team that went to the Olympics. We weren’t sure if we were going to win, but we came back with the gold.”
Nasa’s success could provide leverage in Washington for a renegotiation of proposed budget cuts to the space agency’s planetary exploration programme, as outlined in President Barack Obama’s 2013 budget request to Congress.
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Wednesday 22 May 2013
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