Shadows on the Martian sand

Mars rover Curiosity beams back first snaps from Mars

August 08, 2012

In the early morning the message reaching Earth brought relief all round: at 7.32 am on 6 August Curiosity, NASA’s Mars rover, had touched down safely on the red planet. “We were absolutely overjoyed,” is how Dr. Walter Goetz from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research describes the decisive moment. The researcher is accompanying the mission over the coming months at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, home to the control centre, in Pasadena, California. One of the first pictures that Curiosity radioed to Earth was a type of self-portrait: a picture of its own shadow on the Martian sand. Jubilation erupted in the control centre.

Only two hours later, the rover was already providing a more accurate view of its new home, the huge Gale crater close to the Martian equator. The crater’s rim can be seen on the horizon; the rover is standing on gravel. “The pictures show that this is a very suitable landing site,” said Goetz. No trace of larger lumps of rock which could have endangered a soft landing. 

 The next task of the engineers and scientists in Pasadena will be to determine Curiosity’s exact position and to initiate the complex technology of the automated laboratory, which weighs a considerable 900 kilograms. Goetz explains what will happen next: “During the next few days we will check whether the scientific instruments have survived the flight and landing.” And only after this will the real scientific programme of the mission begin. However, the geologist is sure that the data and images of the tests will provide a foretaste of the coming months: the most exact and comprehensive data from Mars which have ever been possible.

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