Phew. Well, that was exciting, wasn’t it? 🙂
It’s now almost four hours since Curiosity landed inside Gale Crater – exactly where we’re still not quite sure; they will be able to pin down a precise location once the images from the rover’s descent camera have reached the ground – and, both on Mars and here on Earth, the dust has settled. Many weary scientists and journalists are no doubt shuffling back to their homes and hotel rooms, yawning and rubbing their gritty eyes, leaving others to stay behind and keep working. The internet is cooling down too, having gotten red hot during and after landing as millions of people around the world went online to follow the landing and then see the first images as they came in. You could almost hear the internet groaning under the strain..!
But things are calming down now, and with no more images due to be released until teatime UK time (including at least one taken by the HiRISE camera onboard the Mars Reconaissance Orbiter probe, showing Curiosity dropping towards the crater floor! Can’t wait to see that!!) we’ve got a chance to sit back, take a deep breath, and reflect on what has been an incredible, history-making morning.
Many peo0ple – including me, I don’t mind admitting – were initially aghast and horrified by the idea of lowering that priceless rover down onto the surface of Mars at the end of a tether like that, it looked ridiculously flimsy and dangerous. But, as the engineers and designers said it would, it worked, perfectly, in fact the whole entry, descent and landing process seems to have worked perfectly, delivering MSL onto the surface of Mars in one big beautiful shiny piece.
And after all the warnings about how we might have to wait *hours* to see what the rover was seeing, the first pictures came back almost immediately, literally just a handful of minutes after landing, while the team in the MSL room were still on their feet cheering and bear-hugging each other. Initially those images don’t appear to show much, but we can actually tell an awful lot from them. We can tell that Curiosity has landed upright – always a good thing! – and that its wheels depolyed. They tell us she set down on a very flat area, scattered with small rocks that would appear to present no problems when it comes to driving away from the landing site. They *suggest* that the rover set down closer to the dust dunes than it did to the aluvial fan, so we probably won’t get to see that up close, but that’s ok, it means we’re closer to the foothills of Mt Sharp and won’t take as long to get there. We MIGHT be able to see Mt Sharp itself on the images taken by the cameras mounted at the front of the rover, but we’re not sure about that. I made a quick n dirty animation, highlighting what we *might* be seeing (you might need to click on it to set it running)…
And many rover-watchers think that on the images taken by the rear-facing cameras we CAN see the distant rim of the crater, which is pretty cool.
There’s also some speculation that the rover managed to capture a puff of dust in the distance, as the descent stage crashed down to the surface after flying safely away, but it is just speculation. That would be a heck of a thing though, wouldn’t it? 🙂
We do have a new, higher resolution pic from the rover, one that was taken after the cap was removed from its camera, which is a lot clearer and shows more detail on the surface…
So, what’s next? Well, at teatime UK time there’s going to be another press briefing, at which new images will be released by NASA. I’m not sure what will come back from the rover, but we do know that we will get to see the much-anticipated portraits of Curiosity taken by the MRO probe as the rover fell from the martian sky towards Gale. Cruelly teasing Tweets from people on the MRO team suggest that the pictures are *amazing*, so I’m really looking forward to seeing those. But we’ve hours to wait yet. Which is ok, cos I’ve now got to get ready for tonight’s monthly meeting of my town’s astronomical society – and I’ll be able to show them the first pictures sent back by a nuclear-powered rover on Mars!