By Alicia Chang and Seth Borenstein Associated Press
PASADENA, Calif. — NASA celebrated the precision landing of a rover on Mars and marveled over the mission’s first photographs Monday — 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 night after an eight-month, 352-million-mile journey.
Cheers and applause echoed through NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and engineers hugged, high-fived and thrust their fists in the air after signals from space indicated the vehicle had survived the harrowing descent through Mars’ pinkish atmosphere.
JPL Director Charles Elachi likened the team to Olympic athletes: “This team came back with the gold.”
“Everybody in the morning should be sticking their chests out and saying, `That’s my rover on Mars,”’ NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said on NASA TV.
Extraordinary efforts were needed for the landing because the rover weighs one ton, and the thin Martian atmosphere offers little friction to slow a spacecraft down. Curiosity had to go from 13,000 mph to zero in seven minutes, unfurling a parachute, then firing rockets to brake. In a Hollywood-style finish, cables delicately lowered it to the ground at 2 mph.
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.
“We have ended one phase of the mission much to our enjoyment,” mission manager Mike Watkins said. “But another part has just begun.”
The nuclear-powered Curiosity will dig into the Martian surface to analyze 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. Color photos, panoramas and video will start coming in the next few days.
But first NASA had to use tiny cameras designed to spot hazards in front of Curiosity’s wheels. So early images of gravel and shadows abounded. The pictures were fuzzy, but scientists were delighted.
The photos show “a new Mars we have never seen before,” Watkins said. “So every one of those pictures is the most beautiful picture I have ever seen.”
In one of the photos from the close-to-the-ground hazard cameras, if you squinted and looked the right way, you could see “a silhouette of Mount Sharp in the setting sun,” said an excited John Grotzinger, chief mission scientist from the California Institute of Technology.
A high-resolution camera on the orbiting 7-year-old Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, flying 211 miles directly above the plummeting Curiosity, snapped a photo of the rover dangling from its parachute about a minute from touchdown. The parachute’s design can be made out in the photo.
“It’s just mind-boggling to me,” said Miguel San Martin, chief engineer for the landing team.
Curiosity is the heaviest piece of machinery NASA has landed on Mars, and the success gave the space agency confidence that it can unload equipment that astronauts may need in a future manned trip to the red planet.
The landing technique was hatched in 1999 in the wake of devastating back-to-back Mars spacecraft losses. Back then, engineers had no clue how to land super-heavy spacecraft. They brainstormed different possibilities, consulting Apollo-era engineers and pilots of heavy-lift helicopters.
“I think its engineering at its finest. What engineers do is they make the impossible possible,” said former NASA chief technologist Bobby Braun. “This thing is elegant. People say it looks crazy. Each system was designed for a very specific function.”
Because of budget constraints, NASA canceled its joint U.S.-European missions to Mars, scheduled for 2016 and 2018.
“When’s the next lander on Mars? The answer to that is nobody knows,” Bolden said in an interview with The Associated Press recently.
But if Curiosity finds something interesting, he said, it could spur the public and Congress to provide more money for more Martian exploration.
No matter what, he said, Curiosity’s mission will help NASA as it tries to send astronauts to Mars by the mid-2030s.