It's not often you get to sit and watch history being made, but that's what happened tonight. Curiosity landed on the surface of Mars, inside Gale Crater, with the most complicated and sophisticated landing system ever sent to the red planet. The mission's complexity has been likened to Apollo 11's landing on the Moon in 1969.
There's no shortage of reasons to be excited about this mission. Curiosity is huge: weighing in at just under a ton, it's about the size of a car. Its science payload is incredibly impressive. 10 special instruments take up just 165 pounds of the rover's weight, and include an alpha particle X-ray spectrometer, cameras such as a descent imager, a radiation assessment detector, a rover environmental monitoring system and the capacity for in-site sample analysis. The primary mission, which is set to last two years, is going to study Mars to look for signs of habitability, rather than searching directly for life.
But that's not what makes this mission so exciting. It's the landing system — and most notably the sky crane — that's captured the public's imagination. And rightly so. It's an insane system, but it worked exactly as designed.
The entry, descent and landing process (or EDL) began with a heatshield, which is a specially_designed barrier that burned away as the rover entered the atmosphere of Mars. Just four miles above the surface, the heatshield fell away and the parachute deployed; the massive, 65-foot parachute unfurled imparting a neck-snapping 9Gs on the spacecraft. Its job done, the chute fell away and pulled the protective cover off from the descent module. At the same time, the retrorockets ignited and took control. They took over the descent, slowing its fall as it lowered to about 115 feet above the surface. Then Curiosity dropped on a tether — a 65-foot bridle — and landed wheels down.
Here's the very first image Curiosity took after it landed:
Of course, even watching from NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California — where a team from JPL oversaw Curiosity's tricky descent — we don't see these things actually happen. Only an engineer in mission control can see things, and all the engineer gets are blips on a console. For the rest of us, we see a feed of the JPL mission controllers watching those blips coming in one the console, usually with cheers. But it was more exciting than you'd expect.
Sitting in the press room, it was packed, but still completely silent while we all waited for the updates from mission control. At every step of the way — parachute deploy, descent module activating — engineers announced the event in a metered tone. The wild cheers that erupted in the press room with every announcement seemed strangely at odds. Until the landing, that is — once the engineer saw the data from the rover and said, in a admirably controlled voice (with a slight smile, from where we were sitting) that the rover was on finally the ground and safe, the room just about exploded.
It has been a really long haul for a lot of engineers, who spent years developing the technology that made the mission and technology like the sky crane a success. There was a lot riding on this mission, too, like jobs, possible funding increases and the future of Martian and robotic exploration. With all that has gone into developing Curiosity over the past eight years, it's unsurprising that NASA chief engineer Adam Steltzer got a little teary in the post-landing press conference as he thanked his team for making this mission a success. A "good and clean" landing, he called it. I'd take it a step further and say it was a beautiful landing.
Posted on location at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California.