Mars Science Laboratory descending to the surface, as seen by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
It has been quite a morning, science fans. In the wee hours, after traveling Mars-ward for months, the Mars Science Laboratory executed its nail-biting landing maneuver, nicknamed by NASA engineers "Seven Minutes of Terror
." The $2.5 billion craft, bearing the largest-ever Mars rover, Curiosity, autonomously sped into the Martian atmosphere, threw out a parachute, blew off its heat shield, blasted rockets downwards to slow itself, split in two, and lowered one half of itself, the rover, down to the surface, where Curiosity opened its camera eyes and began sending pictures back to Earth
. Then, word trickled out that the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE camera had caught a glimpse of the landing. And indeed it had. You can see the shot to the right: The capsule hangs suspended from the largest supersonic parachute NASA has ever built. Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society has some fitting words
to accompany the image:
I want you to sit back and think about what was going on when this was taken. Both spacecraft were operating totally autonomously, based upon commands uplinked to them a long time before. (Some timing parameters were updated hours before.) This is a spaceship at Mars, and we have a photo of it in action, just minutes before its historic landing. Incredible.
Seconded. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL/UNIV. ARIZONA