Curiosity Lands on Mars [Science and Technology]

[LA Times] Curiosity, the largest and most advanced spacecraft ever sent to another planet, stuck its extraordinary landing Sunday night without a hitch and is poised to begin its pioneering two-year hunt for the building blocks of life — signs that Earth’s creatures may not be alone in the universe.

Applause erupted across the campus of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge and engineers inside mission control could be seen hugging and weeping with joy. Al Chen, an engineer on Curiosity’s entry, descent and landing team, said the words that space scientists had been waiting on for 10 years: “Touchdown confirmed.”

“We did it again!” another engineer shouted.

The landing site was 154 million miles from home, enough distance that the spacecraft’s elaborate landing sequence had to be automated. The Earth also “set” below the Mars horizon shortly before landing, making even delayed direct communication with mission control impossible — and confirmation of Curiosity’s fate tricky.

Engineers were waiting for a passing satellite, Odyssey, to relay a series of three messages from Curiosity. One would indicate the robot’s rough position and how hard it had landed; another would indicate that it was no longer moving; and a third would indicate that the spacecraft was emitting a continuous stream of communication.

This is the first image taken by NASA’s Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars the evening of Aug. 5 PDT (morning of Aug. 6 EDT). It was taken through a “fisheye” wide-angle lens on one of the rover’s front left Hazard-Avoidance cameras at one-quarter of full resolution. The clear dust cover on the camera is still on in this view, and dust can be seen around its edge, along with three cover fasteners. The rover’s shadow is visible in the foreground.

As planned, the rover’s early engineering images are lower resolution. Larger color images are expected later in the week when the rover’s mast, carrying high-resolution cameras, is deployed.

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