NASA releases video of Curiosity's descent, rover returns images of Martian mountain

Published August 07, 2012

| FoxNews.com

NASA has released a video of its Curiosity rover in the final few minutes of its descent to Mars, adding to the remarkable barrage of photos and videos that have been released less than 24 hours after the rover successfully landed on the red planet. 

The video showed the protective heat shield falling away as the rover plummeted through the Mars' atmosphere, and dust was being kicked up as it was lowered by cables inside a crater.

The mission team is awaiting full-resolution frames of the descent -- a process that would take some time. Once they're sent back, it'll be the first full glimpse of a spacecraft landing on another world.

Thanks to a remarkable combination of engineering and mathematics, a NASA satellite in orbit around Mars was also able to capture a picture of the split second when Curiosity fell from the skies to its successful landing on the surface of the red planet.

"We have ended one phase of the mission much to our enjoyment," mission manager Mike Watkins said. "But another part has just begun."

And in a splendid second act, the rover beamed back its first images from the surface of the planet, including a shot Monday night of Mars' Mount Sharp looming in the distance, the object of Curiosity's own programmed curiosity.

The rover's shadow can be seen in the foreground, with dunes in the distance. And beyond rises the highest peak of Mount Sharp, at a height of about 3.4 miles taller than Mount Whitney in California. The Curiosity team hopes to drive the rover to the mountain to investigate its lower layers, which scientists think hold clues to past environmental change.

But first NASA had to use tiny cameras designed to spot hazards in front of Curiosity's wheels. 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."

Earlier, in the amazing photograph of the rover's descent, its parachute is fully deployed and the spacecraft is slowing from the screaming speeds of approach -- as Mars tugged on the spacecraft, it accelerated from 8,000 mph to as much as 13,200 mph -- to a gentle, 2 mph plunkdown on the planet.

“If HiRISE took the image one second before or one second after, we probably would be looking at an empty Martian landscape,” said Sarah Milkovich, HiRISE investigation scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. 

“When you consider that we have been working on this sequence since March and had to upload commands to the spacecraft about 72 hours prior to the image being taken, you begin to realize how challenging this picture was to obtain.”

Once calculations had been made, checked and double checked, and uploaded to the HiRISE camera onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), the team could only hold its breath and hope.

"We plan to eat pizza and Cheetos, watch NASA TV’s coverage of the landing, and monitor telemetry and data processing," Operations Specialist Richard Leis wrote in a blog post prior to the event.

It appears they did the math correctly.

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The image was taken while the MRO satellite was 211 miles from the parachuting rover, NASA explained. Curiosity and its rocket-propelled backpack, contained within the conical-shaped back shell, had yet to be deployed. At the time, Curiosity was about two miles above the Martian surface.

Through the chute, a unique robot arm and a rocket-powered hood, the rover slowed until it drifted to a stop on Mars, to cheers and applause from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory late Sunday.

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

Minutes after the landing signal reached Earth at 10:32 p.m. PDT, 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. The rover then released a slightly higher resolution pair of pictures.

“The first images are always the best to me; when you land on Mars, it’s new every time,” Milkovich said during a press conference Monday afternoon.

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But it won't be able to release higher resolution images for a few days, the rover itself happily chirped on Twitter.

"I aim to send bigger, color pictures from Mars later this week once I've got my head up and Mastcam active," it wrote. (NASA confirmed the rover's guesses during the Monday conference.)

The next few steps and days for the rover will be boring ones, NASA acknowledged, as the team waits for the rover's precise location from the HiRISE satellite. In the meantime, the team will deploy an antenna that lets the rover talk directly to Earth, as well as the mast holding aloft the high-resolution imager that will allow it to take better quality images.

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

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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