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The Mission




Mission: Mars Science Lab
Rocket: Atlas 5 (AV-028)
Launch: Nov. 26, 2011 @ 10:02am EST (1502 GMT)
Landing: Aug. 6, 2012 @ 1:32am EDT (0532 GMT)
Site: Base of Mount Sharp in Gale Crater

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Curiosity rover's descent photographed by orbiter
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: August 6, 2012


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PASADENA, Calif.--The nuclear-powered Curiosity Mars rover survived its nail-biting plunge to a pinpoint landing on the floor of Gale Crater in remarkably good shape, engineers said Monday, setting down on a flat, wind-swept plain littered with uniform gravel-like rocks and firm soil.


Curiosity spotted on parachute by MRO. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
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In a low-resolution view from a hazard avoidance camera on Curiosity's back fender the rim of Gale Crater can be seen some 12 miles away to the northwest while a view from a front hazcam shows the blurry dust-mottled outline of Mount Sharp, a 3-mile-high mound of layered rocks to the southeast that the rover will attempt to climb later in its two-year mission.

The forward view was obscured by dusty debris on a transparent lens cap that was kicked up by the rocket-powered sky crane that lowered Curiosity to the surface late Sunday. The dust cover was to be folded back out of the way later Monday and despite the initially low-resolution views black-and-white views, scientists and engineers were elated.

"To me, it's representative of a successful landing on Mars, it's representative of a new home for the rover, it's representative of a new Mars that we've never seen before," said mission manager Mike Watkins. "And so every one of those pictures is the most beautiful picture I've ever seen."

Later Monday, engineers expected the rover's high-gain antenna to deploy, allowing direct-to-Earth communications, and on Tuesday, Curiosity's main camera mast will be erected, setting the stage for the start of what will eventually be a flood of high-resolution imagery.

"A day or so from now, we're then going to deploy the remote sensing mast so we can take these beautiful panoramas that we've all been waiting to see," Watkins said. "But as for now, the first order of business is to make sure the communications to the Earth are healthy and that's the prime activity upcoming for today."

Along with the thumbnail hazcam images, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter team released a stunning photograph taken from orbit showing Curiosity descending toward the surface under its 70-foot-wide parachute six minutes after atmospheric entry, just before the rover and its rocket-powered sky crane dropped away for the final descent. MRO was 211 miles from Curiosity as it flew almost directly overhead, but the parachute and the spacecraft's backshell were clearly visible.

Additional pictures are planned by the MRO team to photograph Curiosity on the floor of Gale Crater and to look for its discarded parachute, backshell and sky crane descent stage.

But the near term focus is to thoroughly check out Curiosity's complex systems, scientific instruments, cameras and other equipment to make sure the remotely operated robot geologist is ready for a planned two-year science mission.


One of the newest images from Curiosity beamed to Earth on Monday afternoon. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
 
Watkins said telemetry from the rover relayed to Earth by NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter showed the spacecraft landed in good condition and successfully transitioned from entry, descent and landing mode to "surface nominal" mode with no major anomalies.

"I think we all believed it would land successfully," he said. "It's a very complex vehicle and we were a little bit concerned we would land in a safe mode or something like that and it would take us a little while to get out of it. We might not get a comm pass ... and so we'd have to sit and worry and just wait.

"The fact that it went straight into surface nominal, didn't safe, we got great telecom performance, the orbiters performed beautifully, this very complicated avionics with redundant computers and redundant avionics modules have all been fine," he said. "I think we're pleasantly surprised with how smooth that part is going."

The goal of the $2.5 billion mission is to explore the landing zone, where an alluvial fan visible from orbit indicates the flow of water into the crater in the distant past and the transport of rocky debris. Later, the rover will make its way to the base of Mount Sharp a mile and a half or so away for an attempt to climb up through rock layers that represent a trek through the geologic history of the red planet.

The goal is to search for carbon compounds that are critical to life as it is known on Earth and to determine whether Mars was ever habitable.

"The surface mission of Curiosity has now begun," Watkins said. "We built this rover not just to be launched or not just to land on Mars, but to actually drive on Mars and execute a very complex and beautiful science mission.

"We have ended one phase of the mission, much to our enjoyment, but another part has just begun. And it's really the fundamental reason we built the rover. We're just starting that mission."

Preliminary data indicates Curiosity set down a bit more than a mile downrange of its target in the center of a 12-mile-long landing target ellipse -- a bullseye compared to earlier landings. The rover is essentially level and hazcam images show the wheels did not sink into the soil, indicating a firm footing.

"You've heard us speaking about the alluvial fan that we think we've landed very close to the end of and this is the source area, so this is bringing materials in from the rim," said Project Scientist John Grotzinger. "In the foreground, you see a scene that's very familiar to you from other images of Mars, what is undoubtedly a windswept plain with coarse fragments left behind."

The landing site is interesting scientifically "because one of the things we're going to want to do after the commissioning period is over is scoop up some of the soil and analyze it," Grotzinger said. "And what we would really like to do is analyze something that we feel is very representative of Mars. ... We then have a sample of what could be the most global sample of Mars we could measure."

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Additional coverage for subscribers:
VIDEO: THE MARS SCIENCE LAB FULL LAUNCH EXPERIENCE PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: ATLAS 5 ROCKET LAUNCHES MARS SCIENCE LAB PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: ONBOARD CAMERA VIEW OF NOSE CONE JETTISON PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: ONBOARD CAMERA VIEW OF THE STAGING EVENT PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: ONBOARD VIEW OF ROCKET RELEASING MSL PLAY
VIDEO: LAUNCH DECLARED A SUCCESS PLAY

VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: OUR VIEW OF LIFTOFF PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: VAB ROOF PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: PATRICK AFB PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: SOUTH OF THE PAD PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: THE BEACH TRACKER PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: SHUTTLE PAD CAMERA PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: SHUTTLE WATER TOWER PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: TRACKER WEST OF THE PAD PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: CLOSE-UP ON UMBILICALS PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: COMPLEX 41 VIF PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: THE PRESS SITE PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: PRE-LAUNCH INTERVIEW WITH PROJECT MANAGER PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: NARRATED PREVIEW OF ATLAS 5 ASCENT PROFILE PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: ROCKET'S LAUNCH CAMPAIGN HIGHLIGHTS PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: MSL'S LAUNCH CAMPAIGN HIGHLIGHTS PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: SPACECRAFT CLEANROOM TOUR PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: ATLAS ROCKET ROLLS OUT TO LAUNCH PAD PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: TIME-LAPSE VIEWS OF ROCKET ROLLOUT PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: THE PRE-LAUNCH NEWS CONFERENCE PLAY
VIDEO: CURIOSITY ROVER SCIENCE BRIEFING PLAY
VIDEO: LOOKING FOR LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE PLAY
VIDEO: WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT THE RED PLANET PLAY
VIDEO: ROBOTICS AND HUMANS TO MARS TOGETHER PLAY

VIDEO: PREVIEW OF ENTRY, DESCENT AND LANDING PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: PREVIEW OF CURIOSITY ROVER EXPLORING MARS PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: A FLYOVER OF THE GALE CRATER LANDING SITE PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: NUCLEAR GENERATOR HOISTED TO ROVER PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: MARS SCIENCE LAB MOUNTED ATOP ATLAS 5 PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: MOVING MSL TO ATLAS ROCKET HANGAR PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: SPACECRAFT PLACED ABOARD TRANSPORTER PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: APPLYING MISSION LOGOS ON THE FAIRING PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: MSL ENCAPSULATED IN ROCKET'S NOSE CONE PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: FINAL LOOK AT SPACECRAFT BEFORE SHROUDING PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: HEAT SHIELD INSTALLED ONTO SPACECRAFT PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: BEAUTY SHOTS OF SPACECRAFT PACKED UP PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: ATTACHING THE RING-LIKE CRUISE STAGE PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: PARACHUTE-EQUIPPED BACKSHELL INSTALLED PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: SKYCRANE AND CURIOSITY MATED TOGETHER PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: TWO-HALVES OF ROCKET NOSE CONE ARRIVES PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: CENTAUR UPPER STAGE HOISTED ATOP ATLAS PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: FINAL SOLID ROCKET BOOSTER ATTACHED PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: FIRST OF FOUR SOLID BOOSTERS MOUNTED PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: FIRST STAGE ERECTED ON MOBILE LAUNCHER PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: STAGES DRIVEN FROM HARBOR TO THE ASOC PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: ROCKET ARRIVES ABOARD SEA-GOING VESSEL PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: STOWING ROVER'S INSTRUMENTED ROBOT ARM PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: DEPLOYING CURIOSITY'S SIX WHEELS ON EARTH PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: MMRTG PUT BACK INTO STORAGE AT SPACEPORT PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: NUCLEAR GENERATOR FIT-CHECK ON THE ROVER PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: ROVER'S NUCLEAR POWER SOURCE ARRIVES PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: SPIN-TESTING THE RING-LIKE CRUISE STAGE PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: UNCOVERING CURIOSITY ROVER IN CLEANROOM PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: UNVEILING THE ROCKET-POWERED SKYCRANE PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: UNBOXING THE ROVER FROM SHIPPING CRATE PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: ROVER HAULED FROM RUNWAY TO PHSF FACILITY PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: MARS ROVER ARRIVES AT KENNEDY SPACE CENTER PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: DESCENT WEIGHTS INSTALLED ON BACKSHELL PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: SOLAR ARRAY PANELS ATTACHED TO CRUISE RING PLAY | HI-DEF
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