NASA delighted with Mars images

From the vantage point of the Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter, the Curiosity descends by parachuteto the surface of Mars. The descent began at a staggering 13,000 m.p.h. before a touchdown at just 2 m.p.h.
From the vantage point of the Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter, the Curiosity descends by parachuteto the surface of Mars. The descent began at a staggering 13,000 m.p.h. before a touchdown at just 2 m.p.h. (AP)
Posted: August 07, 2012

PASADENA, Calif. - The robotic explorer Curiosity's daring plunge through the pink skies of Mars was more than perfect. It landed with spectacular style, a NASA scientist said, describing the first images of its mechanical gymnastics.

Hours after NASA learned the rover had arrived on target, engineers and scientists got the first glimpses of the intricate maneuvers it made to hit the Martian soil safely.

"It's a spectacular image," NASA research scientist Luther Beegle said, as NASA planned to release a fresh black-and-white picture.

Beegle described a shot that shows the rover and the parachute needed to help gently land it. Extraordinary efforts were needed because the rover weighs one ton and the Martian atmosphere is very thin, making it hard to slow the spacecraft down.

More images, including video of the landing and beautiful color shots of Mars, will follow in the days to come. And soon it will be time to get "down and dirty" and start digging into the red planet's past, Beegle said.

Cheers and applause echoed through the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory early Monday after signals from space indicated Curiosity had survived the harrowing plunge.

"Touchdown confirmed," engineer Allen Chen said. "We're safe on Mars."

Minutes after the landing signal reached Earth at 1:32 a.m. Monday, Curiosity beamed back the first black-and-white pictures from inside the crater showing its wheel and its shadow, cast by the afternoon sun.

"We landed in a nice, flat spot. Beautiful, really beautiful," said engineer Adam Steltzner, who led the team that devised the tricky landing routine.

It was NASA's seventh landing on Earth's neighbor; many other attempts by the United States and other countries to zip past, circle, or set down on Mars have gone awry.

The arrival was an engineering tour de force, debuting never-before-tried acrobatics packed into "seven minutes of terror" as Curiosity sliced through the Martian atmosphere at 13,000 m.p.h.

In a Hollywood-style finish, cables delicately lowered the rover to the ground at a snail-paced 2 m.p.h. A video camera was set to capture the most dramatic moments - which would give Earthlings their first glimpse of a touchdown on another world.

Jet Propulsion Laboratory director Charles Elachi compared the team to Olympic athletes.

"This team came back with the gold," he said.

The extraterrestrial feat gave a much-needed boost to NASA, which is debating whether it can afford another robotic Mars landing this decade. At a budget-busting $2.5 billion, Curiosity is the priciest gamble yet, which scientists hope will pay off with a bonanza of discoveries and pave the way for astronaut landings.

"The wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze the trail for human footprints on Mars," NASA chief Charles Bolden said.

President Obama lauded the landing in a statement, calling it "an unprecedented feat of technology that will stand as a point of national pride far into the future."

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