NASA pulled off the most daring space landing ever today by successfully placing their one-ton rover Curiosity gently onto the surface of Mars. Scientists at mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California whooped, cheered or burst into tears of relief as news came back that the craft was safely on the ground in Gale Crater.
Within minutes the first pictures came back, showing dust blown up by the thrusters of Sky Crane that had lowered the $2.5 billion probe onto the ground, ending “seven minutes of terror” flying through the atmosphere.
The commentator on NASA TV said: “There is the wheel of Curiosity safely on Mars. Unbelievable. This is amazing.” But minutes later NASA websites crashed under the phenomenal demand to view the images.
Everyone in the team – and space fans around the world – had their hearts in their mouths as the time for the ambitious landing approached. An orbiting Mars probe, Odyssey, picked up Curiosity’s signal as it made its final powered descent and confirmed touchdown at 06.31am UK time, exactly as planned.
The landing was like scoring a hole in one after a journey of 566 million km (350 million miles) over nearly nine months.
The Mars team at JPL had been chewing their nails – and following a tradition of eating peanuts – as they waited to find out if the Mini Cooper-sized rover had made it safely to the surface of the Red Planet to begin a search for signs of life.
Due to the distances involved, there were 14 minutes when they knew the rover had to be on the surface but just had no idea if it was intact or a crumpled wreck.
The odds looked so crazy that many termed Curiosity’s flight Mission Impossible. Years of work had gone into designing an incredible landing technique called Sky Crane that had never been tried in space before.
Curiosity, which slowed from 21,000 km per hour as it entered the atmosphere to 0.6 km per hour as it landed, will now spend at least two years exploring inside Gale Crater, south of the martian equator, to look for signs of organics in the martian rocks and soil, indicating that life might have inhabited the planet billions of years ago.
Tonight NASA released an astonishing photo showing its Curiosity rover parachuting to its safe landing on Mars. The image of the lander at the end of a supersonic parachute was captured by a powerful camera aboard the space agency’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as it flew over the scene.
The rover can be seen descending above etched plains just north of the sand dunes that fringe Mount Sharp, the peak at the centre of Gale Crater. Click here to view the full-sized image.