Coming off the successful Sunday landing, the Mars rover is already busy sending images to Earth.
By Mary O’KEEFE
The Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity has been on Mars for four days as of today and has already sent back pictures described by scientists in terms like “spectacular” “amazing” and “better than we could have hoped for.”
The sigh that was heard around the world came from Mission Control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at 10:31 p.m. on Sunday. That was when Curiosity sent back data that it had “wheels on the ground.”
Curiosity is one of the most ambitious space missions that NASA/JPL has undertaken. It is a rover, the size of a Mini-Cooper that landed in a very precise area of Gale Crater.
MSL carrying Curiosity launched on Nov. 26, 2011 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The trip to Mars was picture perfect, with fewer trajectory corrections than planned.
Beginning Aug. 2, media from around the world began to descend on JPL to cover the landing. JPL kept everyone up to date about MSL’s progress as data was sent back to engineers. Engineers and scientists reached out to the public like never before with Facebook, Twitter and online programs that allowed the public to follow the spacecraft and learn about the science behind the project. It was not thousands of hits, but millions of hits to JPL/NASA websites.
In a press conference before the landing, Dr. Charles Elachi quoted President Theodore Roosevelt: Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checked by failure … than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.
“We are doing mighty things,” he said.
Although MSL had a smooth ride to Mars, there was still the landing that had to be faced. The seven minutes of terror is what engineers called the seven minutes of autonomous control as MSL went through the final stages of landing. At that point it was all up to the computer program to land the spacecraft.
As the world watched, those at JPL passed the jar of peanuts, a good luck tradition that began during the Ranger program in the 1960s. Someone on the team was eating peanuts when the Ranger, the first U.S. attempt to obtain photos of the moon, was accomplished. The mission was successful and the “good luck peanut” tradition was born.
There were other lucky traditions, from wearing specific trinkets to hair styles, all to cover every angle of possibility and to take nothing for granted as the spacecraft came closer to Mars.
The stage was set, the peanuts were passed around and everything ready for the landing. Each successful stage of the landing was rewarded with cheers from the control room. Then at 10:17 p.m. Pacific Standard Time, Curiosity touched down. It takes 14 minutes to receive messages sent to Earth from Mars, so the word of the landing was received at Mission Control at 10:31 p.m.
Cheers and tears were shared as those who had worked so long and so hard on this mission were finally able to breathe a sigh of relief.
Lead Fault Protection Engineer Tracy Neilson was in Mission Control Sunday night. She and her team designed the autonomous actions of the flight. Her program was disabled before landing. Her autonomous program worked perfectly and then it was time to wait for all the other pieces to fall into place.
Neilson has to rely on a computer program she designed not only for the flight but also once the rover begins roaming the surface.
“Yes, sometimes I would like Capt. Sully at the controls,” she said. “But we have to rely on autonomous control.” U.S. Airways pilot Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landed his disabled airliner in the Hudson River on Jan. 15, 2009, saving all aboard.
Neilson has been doing her job for a long time and knows to trust the programs although there have been some nail-biting moments during past missions.
MER (Mars Exploration Rover Mission) involved two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, in 2003.
“During MER we lost tone [contact] for 17 minutes,” she said. “Seventeen minutes is a really long time when you are waiting.”
The tone, or contact, came back and the rovers continued their exploration. For MSL, there were no glitches, just a lot of breath holding, finger crossing and peanuts and Neilson would not have it any other way.
“One of my favorite [times] is sitting down with four people and just talking about what we can do,” she said.
Each person has their expertise, each working together to create, design and bring it all to a reality.
And now Curiosity’s work has begun. Minutes after touchdown, Curiosity began sending photos to Earth. The first was a thumbnail of a wheel on the ground; the next was the shadow of the rover on the Martian soil.
Pictures continue to be released including a series of shots after the heat shields were off and the ground coming closer. There are also shots from the orbiters that were positioned to have the best seat in the Martian sky to watch the landing.
Crescenta Valley Weekly had continuous coverage of the days and hours prior to landing and of the landing itself. For information, visit www.cvweekly.com and click on the links for photos of the landing and the rover’s view of Mars as well as information on a new MSL XBox game.