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Mars rover Curiosity's perfect landing captured in stunning photo

August 7, 2012 |  3:45 am

Mars lander photo

Mars rover Curiosity's pitch-perfect landing Sunday night was captured in a photo taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The photo shows Curiosity, its parachute deployed, floating toward the surface of Mars.

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.

"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."

PHOTOS: JPL's faces of joy

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.

INTERACTIVE: Curiosity, from liftoff to landing

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 and, eventually, human exploration.

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. Al Chen, an engineer on Curiosity's entry, descent and landing team, said 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.


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Photo: A photo taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows Curiosity descending toward the planet. Credit: NASA

-- Scott Gold and Amina Kahn