NASA’s Curiosity rover has transmitted a low-resolution video showing the last two-and-a-half minutes of its white-knuckle dive through the Martian atmosphere, giving earthlings a sneak peek of a spacecraft landing on another world.
It was a sneak preview, since it’ll take some time before full-resolution frames are beamed back depending on other priorities.
The full video “will just be exquisite,” said Michael Malin, the chief scientist of the instrument.
NASA celebrated the precision landing of a rover on Mars and marvelled over the mission’s flurry of photographs — grainy, black-and-white images of Martian gravel; a mountain at sunset; and, most exciting of all, the spacecraft’s white-knuckle plunge through the red planet’s atmosphere.
Curiosity — a roving laboratory the size of a compact car — landed right on target late Sunday after an eight-month, 566-million-kilometre journey. It parked its six wheels about six km from its ultimate science destination Mount Sharp, rising from the floor of Gale Crater near the equator.
Extraordinary efforts were needed for the landing because the rover weighs one tonne, and the thin Martian atmosphere offers little friction to slow down a spacecraft. Curiosity had to go from 13,000 mph (21,000 kph) to zero in seven minutes — unfurling a parachute, and then firing rockets to brake.
In a Hollywood-style finish, cables delicately lowered it to the ground at three kph.
At the end of what NASA called “seven minutes of terror”, the vehicle settled into place almost perfectly flat in the crater it was aiming for.
The nuclear-powered Curiosity will dig into the Martian surface to analyse what’s there and hunt for some of the molecular building blocks of life, including carbon.
It won’t start moving for a couple of weeks, because all the systems on the $2.5 billion rover have to be checked out. Colour photos and panoramas will start coming in the next few days.