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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Humans send their Curiosity to Mars!

By Phil Plait

At 05:31 UTC, on August 6, 2012 - right on schedule, and right on target, after a 560 million kilometer voyage across space - the Mars Science Laboratory, affectionately named Curiosity, touched down on Mars.

In an amazing display of engineering, the incredibly complex and difficult Martian atmospheric entry apparently went without a hitch. The heat shield worked perfectly, the parachutes deployed, the rockets fired, the skycrane lowered the rover, and after eight months in space after launch, the rover set wheels down on the Red Planet.

And within minutes, we got pictures! This was one of the first received from the rover:

WOW! This image is from the Hazard Avoidance Camera, and is actually pretty low res, but still. The camera has a clear protective cover on it to keep out dust blown up when the rover set down, and you can see some dust has stuck to it, muddying the picture (the cover will be ejected soon and we'll get clearer pictures). But even through the schmutz you can see the landscape, mostly smooth with small rocks nearby. You can also see one of the rover's wheels on the bottom.

Even more dramatic is this one:

Awwwwww, yeah. That would be the shadow of the newest citizen of Mars right there.

What an amazing thing, to watch this whole landing unfold live before our eyes. I was in a live video hangout with Fraser Cain, Pamela Gay, Amy Shira Teitel, Ian O'Neill, Dave Mosher, and many others, and when the final minutes drew near, the tension in the control room at JPL was palpable. I'm not sure how many nail-biting space events I've sat through, but they never get old, and they never get easier.

And how did we find out Curiosity was down? When we heard the control room people erupt into cheers through Amy's live feed (and also by the look on Amy's face).

My profound and sincere congratulations and thanks to NASA, to JPL, and to the hundreds of men and women who have spent years working on this one-ton, three meter-long mobile interplanetary chemistry lab!

... but after all that tension, all those incredibly complex maneuvers, and all that celebration, remember this: the adventure for Curiosity has just begun. It will now explore the environment of Gale crater, a 150 kilometer-wide impact site on Mars. It will examine the rocks, studying their composition and their history, adding to our understanding of how Mars has changed over the eons. Where did its water go? What was the surface like billions of years ago? And of course, the biggie: was the surface of Mars, one of our nearest neighbors in space, ever habitable?

All that is to come over the rover's two (Earth) year mission. For now, it's OK to sit back and soak up the fact that we humans flung a bit of ourselves across the solar system. We reached across space, and did something amazing.

And I certainly can't put it any better than Curiosity itself did:

Welcome to Mars, kiddo. You'll do well there.

Image credits: NASA/JPL. The first image was posted on reddit; the second was from a screengrab by Jason Major. Note: NASA will be posting the raw images from the rover as they come in on the Mars JPL website.

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- Watch the Curiosity hangout here!
- Wil Wheaton has Curiosity
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