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Mars rover Curiosity: 'Perfect' landing, dramatic photos

A picture taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows Curiosity descending toward the planet.

As NASA scientists review Mars rover Curiosity's landing on Sunday, they've concluded the landing was close to perfect. And now they have some photos to prove it as well.

The Times will host a Google+ Hangout scheduled for noon PDT to discuss the latest developments. Times reporters Scott Gold and Amina Khan will be live from JPL.

A photo released Monday shows Curiosity, its parachute deployed, floating toward the surface of Mars. Tuesday, NASA released a picture in which the rover's shadow can be seen in the foreground, with a large mountain off in the distance.

PHOTOS: JPL's faces of joy

Curiosity's landing, it turned out, was as close to perfect as an eight-month journey through space can produce. In interviews with The Times, engineers said initial reviews of Curiosity's final minutes in flight revealed a startling fact: the landing ran into fewer problems than any of the hundreds of simulations they had run over the last two years.

Click for larger image"It was cleaner than any of our tests," said Al Chen, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer and a member of the mission's landing team, shaking his head with amaement. "It was a blast."

Space scientists said Monday that NASA's Curiosity rover had landed on a slope of just 3.6 degrees, with its nose pointed down, but only barely. They also reported that initial checks indicated that Curiosity's suite of geochemistry instruments survived the landing sequence.

INTERACTIVE: Curiosity, from liftoff to landing

"We landed pretty much on this table right here," said Curiosity mission systems manager Michael Watkins, patting his palm on a table at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "It's a pretty good spot."

The landing Sunday night brought cheers that continued to echo Monday.

Adam Steltzner, the lead mechanical engineer for entry, spent nearly a decade at JPL working on Curiosity. In a Times Google+ chat Monday, he described what it was like to see the rover on Mars.

"We could not even imagine in our wildest dreams it doing as well as it did," he said.

Steltzner spoke about the nervousness and excitement inside the control room at JPL in the final moments before Curiosity landed. He described it as "a lot of focus occasionally broken up by celebration."

Others at JPL were similarly excited.

"So that rocked. Seriously! Woo!" said Richard Cook, deputy project manager for the Mars Science Laboratory, as  he punched upward with both fists, a sign of victory.

Cook reminisced about how far they had come since the 1997 Pathfinder mission, which sent the first rover, Sojourner, to skitter across the Martian surface. Sojourner was a relatively simple, skateboard-sized affair, whereas the latest rover — known as Curiosity — is a laser-zapping, video-shooting chemical laboratory on wheels.

"Pathfinder was great, but we were young and stupid, frankly," Cook said, to much laughter.

The elation was mixed with relief.

“I’m so glad we nailed that sucker!” mission systems engineer Randii Wessen said.

The real goal of the mission — a  hunt for the building blocks of life and signs that Earth's creatures may not be alone in the universe — is just beginning.

Curiosity is expected to revolutionize the understanding of Mars, gathering evidence of whether the planet is or was capable of fostering life, probably in microbial form.

The spacecraft is also expected to pave the way for important leaps in deep-space exploration, including bringing Martian rock or soil back to Earth for detailed analysis; it could eventually lead to  human exploration of the planet, too.

Curiosity is a full-fledged geochemistry lab on wheels, able to vaporize rocks, “taste” air samples and ingest dirt, then send the results of experiments home from 154 million miles away.

Ensuring that all of Curiosity's instruments are working in proper fashion will take weeks. The rover is not expected to begin driving until early September and will probably begin scooping samples several weeks later. Curiosity is expected to begin drilling into rocks later in the fall.

Applause erupted across the campus of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge when the landing was affirmed, and engineers inside mission control could be seen hugging and weeping with joy.  Chen uttered the words that space scientists had been awaiting for 10 years: "Touchdown confirmed."

"We did it again!" another engineer shouted.

The landing site was so distant that the spacecraft's elaborate landing sequence had to be automated. The Earth also "set" below the Mars horizon shortly before landing, making even delayed direct communication with mission control impossible — and confirmation of Curiosity's fate tricky.

ALSO:

What's next for Mars rover Curiosity?

Curiosity's successful landing 'made history'

Mars rover: Curiosity's landing, as told through Twitter

Top photo: A picture taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows Curiosity descending toward the planet.

Lower photo: An image released by NASA on Tuesday image shows what lies ahead for the Curiosity rover -- its main science target, Mount Sharp. The rover's shadow can be seen in the foreground, and the dark bands beyond are dunes. Credit: NASA

-- Scott Gold and Amina Kahn

 
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