After traveling for more than eight months through over 350 million miles of space, the Curiosity rover landed safely on the surface of Mars a few hours ago. The 1-ton, $2.5 billion, SUV-sized robot was lowered gently to the planet on a tether from a rocket-fired sky crane almost exactly on the target time of 1:31 a.m. EDT Monday. (I think it was a few seconds early.)
This was an amazing victory for NASA, not only because it puts the most high-powered, sophisticated robotic laboratory ever on the surface of our red neighbor, but because the sky crane delivery system is revolutionary – and, let’s face it, kind of an insane idea to risk billions of dollars on – and the success of the landing should ease the path to more funding for the beleaguered space agency at a time when budget cuts are pushing pure science to the back burner.
I watched the entire landing process via Ustream, which had cameras at mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. So I got to experience the tension among the brainiacs as their high-tech baby completed her maiden (and only) voyage to the storied Red Planet. When word came, “Touchdown confirmed. We are safe on Mars!” I actually let out a whoop of joy, something I haven’t done during the Olympics so far!
Within minutes of landing, Curiosity was able to bounce low-resolution photographs off the Mars Odyssey orbiter to confirm that it was safe. We saw one of the rover’s wheels, and its shadow, which seemed to indicate it was entirely intact. Curiosity hoist its high-gain antenna into place over the next few hours so it can communicate with Earth directly rather using Odyssey as a go-between. The images indicated that the rover is sitting on a flat, pebble-strewn plain not unlike other Martian terrain we’ve seen.
I was so excited about this landing that I kept posting statuses on Facebook, so I suspect some of my friends may be nonplussed with the blow-by-blow commentary. But I also posted on Twitter, as well. I absolutely could not believe that NBC was broadcasting badminton reruns while all this drama was going on in space! Badminton! The scandal-ridden, thoroughly discredited “sport” in which the USA has never even been in contention for a medal – badminton reruns, instead of a truly great moment in America’s unsurpassed history in space! Talk about #NBCfail.
But let’s forget about network TV bungling and instead celebrate the United States’ gold medal in planetary exploration! Hell, we swept the medals here!
I couldn’t sleep, so I decided to pen this post now, rather than waiting for the morning. A little part of me hopes some geek at JPL secreted a little plaque aboard Curiosity that reads, “Attention Mars: All your craters are belong to us!”