NASA/JPL-Caltech

On the ground. One of the first images snapped by Curiosity, sent within minutes after it touched down, shows the rover's own shadow.

Curiosity Has Landed

Dick writes about Earth and planetary science for Science magazine.

It all worked. The 500,000 lines of computer code went off without a glitch. The 76 onboard explosive devices popped off in sequence to the microsecond, throwing valves and cutting loose tether lines. So Curiosity rover's 7 minutes of terror had the happiest of endings. At 1:37 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, word came down: "Touchdown confirmed. We're safe on Mars." Signals from Curiosity, followed within minutes by the first crude images of wheels on the ground, confirmed that it had safely touched down in Gale crater on Mars near enticing water-altered sediments at the foot of 5-kilometer-tall Mount Sharp.

Aside from burnishing NASA's reputation with the public and with budget cutters in Congress and the Obama Administration, the success demonstrated two technologies key to NASA's ambitions on the Red Planet. Guided entry—an onboard autonomous navigation system—brought Curiosity to its target area, one almost an order of magnitude smaller than previous landing targets. And the new "rover on a rope" sky-crane system safely set down the largest mass ever delivered to another planetary surface.

All of this will ease the way for the committee advising NASA leadership later this month on how the cash-strapped agency might proceed with the scientific exploration of Mars.

Posted in Space