Rendezvous with the Red Planet

The robotic explorer Curiosity’s daring plunge through the pink skies of Mars was more than perfect. It landed with spectacular style, said a NASA scientist who described the first images of its gymnastics through the so-called “seven minutes of terror.”

PASADENA, Calif. — The robotic explorer Curiosity’s daring plunge through the pink skies of Mars was more than perfect. It landed with spectacular style, said a NASA scientist who described the first images of its gymnastics through the so-called “seven minutes of terror.”

Hours after the U.S. space agency learned the rover had arrived on target late Sunday, engineers and scientists got the first glimpses of the intricate manoeuvres it made to hit the Martian soil safely.

“It’s a spectacular image,” said NASA research scientist Luther Beegle. The photo, taken from an orbiting Mars spacecraft, shows Curiosity dangling from its supersonic parachute as it descended.

Extraordinary efforts were needed for the landing because the rover weighs about one tonne, and the Martian atmosphere is very thin, not offering much friction to slow the spacecraft down.

The arrival was an engineering tour de force, debuting never-before-tried acrobatics as Curiosity sliced through the Martian atmosphere at 20,900 km/h.

More images, including video of the landing and beautiful colour shots of Mars, will follow in days to come. It will be weeks before Curiosity starts digging into the red planet’s past.

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

“Touchdown confirmed,” said engineer Allen Chen. “We’re safe on Mars.”

Minutes after the landing signal reached Earth, 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 landing routine.

In a Hollywood-style finish, cables delicately lowered the rover to the ground at a snail-paced 3.2 km/h. A video camera was set to capture the most dramatic moments.

JPL Director Charles Elachi compared the team to Olympic athletes.

“This team came back with the gold,” he said.

Gilles Leclerc, director-general of space exploration at the Canadian Space Agency, said workers there were celebrating as well, having spent years working on a device aboard Curiosity that will help look for signs of life.

“Well, we’re Canadians, eh? So it was less enthusiastic but I would say it was as emotional as it was in the U.S. But there were cheers indeed and it was again a great moment.”

Still, he said from Longueuil, Que., there were some tense moments. President Barack Obama called the landing “an unprecedented feat of technology that will stand as a point of national pride far into the future.”

“The seven minutes of terror that we had been told to expect turned into a triumph in the end because it was a very daring landing technique and it was successful … so we were all very ecstatic.”

The extraterrestrial feat injected 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.

Over the next two years, Curiosity will drive over to a mountain rising from the crater floor, poke into rocks and scoop up rust-tinted soil to see if the region ever had the right environment for microscopic organisms to thrive. It’s the latest chapter in the long-running quest to find out whether primitive life arose early in the planet’s history.

The voyage to Mars took more than eight months.

NASA’s last Mars rovers, twins Spirit and Opportunity, weighed much less and were easier to land back in 2004, cocooned in air bags.

Curiosity relied on a series of braking tricks, similar to those used by the space shuttle, a heat shield and a supersonic parachute to slow down as it punched through the atmosphere.

And in a new twist, engineers came up with a way to lower the rover by cable from a hovering rocket-powered backpack. At touchdown, the cords cut and the rocket stage crashed a distance away.

The nuclear-powered Curiosity, the size of a small car, is packed with scientific tools, cameras and a weather station. It sports a robotic arm with a power drill, a laser that can zap distant rocks, a chemistry lab to sniff for the chemical building blocks of life and a detector to measure dangerous radiation on the surface.

It also tracked radiation levels during the journey to help NASA better understand the risks astronauts could face on a future manned trip.

There will be several weeks of health checkups before the six-wheel rover takes its first short drive and flexes its robotic arm.

The landing site near Mars’ equator was picked because there are signs of past water everywhere, meeting one of the requirements for life as we know it.

Previous trips to Mars have uncovered ice near the Martian north pole and evidence that water once flowed when the planet was wetter and toastier, unlike today’s harsh, frigid desert environment.

Curiosity’s goal: to scour for basic ingredients essential for life including carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulphur and oxygen. It’s not equipped to search for living or fossil microorganisms.

The mission comes as NASA retools its Mars exploration strategy. Faced with tough economic times, the space agency pulled out of partnership with the European Space Agency to land a rock-collecting rover in 2018. The Europeans have since teamed with the Russians as NASA decides on a new roadmap.

Despite Mars’ reputation as a spacecraft graveyard, humans continue their love affair with the planet, lobbing spacecraft in search of clues about its early history. Out of more than three dozen attempts — flybys, orbiters and landings — by the U.S., Soviet Union, Europe and Japan since the 1960s, more than half have ended disastrously.

One NASA rover that defied expectations is Opportunity, which is still busy wheeling around the rim of a crater in the Martian southern hemisphere eight years later.

(With files from The Canadian Press and AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein in Washington.)

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