Safely on Mars, NASA rover Curiosity gets busy

Robotic rover sends back its first high-resolution images of Martian crater

Now that NASA's rover Curiosity has safely landed on Mars, it's time for the robot to get to work.

And that's exactly what NASA engineers say is happening today.

"The surface mission of Curiosity has now begun," Michael Watkins, a mission systems manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said during a news conference today. "For a long time, we knew we had to get through some big events. Launch was a big one for us and landing was a big one for us. We have ended one phase of the mission..., but another part has just begun."

Now, he said, NASA can focus what's most important - exploration.

"It's really the fundamental reason of the rover," said Watkins. "We're just starting that mission.... This is our new home, at least for a while. We need to explore it and take a look around."

Curiosity is tasked with a two-year mission designed to gather evidence that Mars is or has been capable of supporting life, probably in microbial form.

For the first day or so, NASA engineers will be working with the rover to check out its systems and make sure nothing was damaged or altered during its 350-million-mile journey through space or during its landing. Watkins said one of the first things researchers will do is deploy a small antennae on the rover that should enable it to communicate directly with Earth - without any relay assistance from a Mars orbiter.

The NASA rover Curiosity descending under its 51-foot-parachute to the Martian surface. (Image: NASA)

In a day or two, the rover will deploy its mast, which should enable Curiosity to take pictures of its surroundings.

It could take weeks to check all of Curiosity's instruments, according to NASA. That means the rover may not begin actually moving through the crater until September.

Miguel San Martin, a chief engineer on the Curiosity team, noted that engineers will be working to verify the coordinates of the rover's landing site.

"Curiosity was very confident in the location of its touch down," he added. "Now NASA will work to verify that its navigation data is correct.... Like the sailors did, we use the stars."

Just after 1:30 a.m. ET today, the one-ton, SUV-sized rover landed inside a Martian crater. The rover, named Curiosity, used a supersonic parachute, nylon tethers and rockets to safely alight safely.

Seven minutes elapsed between the time the spacecraft entered the Martian atmosphere and the time it touched down on the planet's surface. Adam Steltzner, a NASA engineer, called it "seven minutes of terror" because the rover had to go from 13,000 miles an hour to zero in a perfectly choreographed sequence of events.

NASA engineers weren't in control of the landing. The rover's computers were programmed to handle it on their own.

As Curiosity made its way through the Martian atmosphere, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter grabbed a stunning shot of it with its open parachute, which is 51 feet in diameter.

Shortly after is landing, Curiosity called home. NASA's Mars Odyssey robotic spacecraft, which has been orbiting Mars since 2001, relayed the message back to NASA.

"She's in service nominal mode," said Watkins. "It's not in safe mode, but very healthy."

This is one of the first images taken by NASA's Curiosity rover. (Image: NASA)

Curiosity has already sent back its first picture, a high-resolution photo of its new home on Mars - the Gale Crater.

"Curiosity's landing site is beginning to come into focus," said John Grotzinger, project manager of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission. "What you see on the horizon is the rim of Gale Crater. In the foreground, you can see a gravel field. The question is, where does this gravel come from?"

Equipped with 10 scientific instruments, Curiosity has the most advanced payload of scientific gear ever used on the surface of Mars, including chemistry instruments, environmental sensors and radiation monitors. The payload is more than 10 times as lage as those of earlier Mars rovers.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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