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Dramatic photos of Mars arrive as Curiosity's mission begins

August 8, 2012 |  4:00 am

Dramatic photos have emerged from Mars as scientists begin the rover Curiosity's mission in earnest.
NASA has released Curiosity's first color image from the Red Planet. The photograph, below, the first of the Martian surface to be taken by the rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager, shows the north wall and rim of Gale Crater.

Click for larger imageTuesday, NASA released a picture, farther below, in which the rover's shadow can be seen in the foreground, with a large mountain off in the distance. 

Curiosity is expected to revolutionize the understanding of Mars, gathering evidence that Mars 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 and, eventually, human exploration.

INTERACTIVE: Curiosity, from liftoff to landing

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.

"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 amazement. "It was a blast."

SClick for larger imagepace 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.

"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 in a sign of victory.

Cook reminisced about how far they had come since the 1997 Pathfinder mission, which sent the first rover, Sojourner, skittering 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.


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NASA Mars rover Curiosity's landing 'rocked... Was that not cool?'

Photos: (top) Curiosity's first color photo from Mars shows the north wall and rim of Gale Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems

(bottom) An image released by NASA on Tuesday 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