Curiosity on Mars: Next Up, Exploration
By Frank Morring, Jr. email@example.com, Guy Norris firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: AWIN First
Things went faster after that, with the heat shield falling away, the descent stage dropping out of the backshell and the monopropellant engines firing and slowing the descent through the final kilometer toward the surface. The sky crane worked as advertised, lowering Curiosity to the surface on nylon cables, and then cutting them to fly a safe distance away from the rover.
The link through Odyssey remained strong as the orbiter dipped down beside the mountain and further out of sight of the relay satellites, allowing thumbnail images collected by rear- and forward-facing hazard-avoidance cameras through transparent dust shields. Although low resolution, the forward image clearly showed the rover’s shadow on the surface of Mars. Even with the late hour in the U.S., the NASA websites displaying the images all crashed briefly with overload.
It will be a day or so before engineers know exactly where Curiosity is on the surface, but it clearly is close to its touchdown target. Telemetry indicated the landing left 140kg of fuel unspent, an indication of how little of the margin designed into the sky crane system was needed.
John Grotzinger, the mission’s chief scientist, says the next two weeks or so will be spent checking out the rover’s 10 instruments, followed by a short drive. Images and scientific data will be collected and sent to Earth during the checkout period, and scientists will spend at least a year checking out the terrain around the landing site before moving up the mountain.
“We just don’t want to rush,” Grotzinger says.