Six-wheeled robot now set to begin its multi-year mission at Gale Crater.
“It’s the wheel! It’s the wheel!”
The jubilant shout was heard over cheers and exclamations as team members with NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory — also known as Curiosity — watched the first image from their spacecraft flash up on a control room screen here at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, just minutes after it landed. The picture capped off a dramatic descent sequence that deposited the rover on the surface of Mars at 10:32 p.m. Pacific daylight time on 5 August.
Although not a beautiful image — it was shot through a lens cover by the rover’s rear hazard camera — the picture was enough to show one of Curiosity’s wheels resting firmly on the Martian soil. Off in the distance, the curving horizon beckons.
After an 8-month journey, Curiosity survived its violent, 7-minute fall through the thin atmosphere of Mars before touching down with a speed of less than 1 metre per second, the softest landing in Mars exploration history. The feat proved that the mission’s wickedly complicated landing system was as robust as advertised.
The 900-kilogram rover touched down at the bottom of Gale Crater, a 154-kilometre-wide pit the size of Kuwait, where it will begin its search for past habitable environments.
Indication of a safe landing came almost immediately via Mars Odyssey, an 11-year-old orbiter that relayed telemetry data from the spacecraft to large radio antennas in Canberra, Australia, part of NASA’s Deep Space Network.