Nasa’s Curiosity Rover has transmitted its first colour photo and a low-resolution video showing the last two-and-a-half minutes of its white-knuckle dive through the Martian atmosphere, giving us earthlings a sneak peek of a spacecraft landing on another world.
As thumbnails of the video flashed on a big screen on Monday, scientists and engineers at the Nasa Jet Propulsion let out “oohs” and “aahs”. The recording began with the protective heat shield falling away and ended with dust being kicked up as the Rover was lowered by cables inside an ancient crater.
It was a sneak preview, since it will 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.
The colour photo from the crater where Curiosity landed showed a pebbly landscape and the rim of Gale Crater in the distance. Curiosity snapped the photo on the first day on the surface after touching down on Sunday night.
The Rover took the shot with a camera at the end of its robotic arm. The landscape looked fuzzy because the camera’s removable cover was coated with dust that kicked up during the descent to the ground.
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 on Sunday after an eight-month, 566-million-km journey. It parked its six wheels about 6.5km from its ultimate 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 ton, and the thin Martian atmosphere offers little friction to slow down a spacecraft. Curiosity had to go from 21,000km/h 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 3km/h.
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,” said mission manager Mike Watkins. “But another part has just begun.”
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 will not start moving for a couple of weeks, because all the systems on the €2bn Rover have to be checked out. Colour photos and panoramas 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.”
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