While the landing provided high drama and a look at the highest-quality, made-in-America technology and expertise, the mission has only begun, and soon the scientists will begin their work. More than 300 of them gathered at JPL for the landing, as anxious as the engineers about the rover’s fate.
Curiosity’s overall mission is to search for the building blocks of extraterrestrial life on Mars and to identify habitats where it may once have flourished. The Gale Crater landing site was selected because orbiting satellites have determined it was once covered in water and still shows a large “alluvial fan,” where river water or meltwater once ran.
In addition, it is known to contain clays and minerals that can be formed only in water — the kind of terrain that could house and preserve the carbon-based organic compounds that are essential to life as we know it.
Curiosity also will be providing images and videos of a type and quality never seen before. The first photos were primitive black-and-white fisheye images taken by the hazard cameras at the bottom of the vehicle, used to look for potentially harmful boulders. But future pictures will be in high-definition color, and some will be taken from Mount Sharp — the three-mile-high mountain in the center of the crater that Curiosity will climb in the months ahead.
The image of Curiosity’s descent was taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. In the photo, the Curiosity rover was still connected to its 51-foot-wide parachute as it descended toward its landing site at Gale Crater.
“If HiRISE took the image one second before or one second after, we probably would be looking at an empty Martian landscape,” said Sarah Milkovich, HiRISE investigation scientist at JPL. She said the team had been preparing to take the photo since March and finally uploaded commands to the satellite only 72 hours prior to the landing.
At a JPL news conference Monday, mission manager Mike Watkins said “we are a ‘go’ for all plans” for first-day activities. He described them as “kind of boring,” including system checks to make sure the rover is fully operational. The first order of business: making sure communications back to Earth are healthy.
Quite a change after the jubilation and triumph of the early Monday landing but necessary for the next steps forward.
Emi Kolawole contributed to this report.