Mars Science Laboratory: A Mission of Firsts
August 8, 2012 • 8:42AM

The first flow of data and even the low-resolution images that have come back to Earth in the first 36 hours from the Mars Science Laboratory mission, have vindicated the daring approach of the scientists and engineers who have worked on the mission for a decade: only something on the frontier of technology can push forward the frontier of knowledge. Science: One. Obama: zero.

The never-before-attempted complex of techniques for gently landing the one-ton laboratory, Curiosity, on the surface of Mars all performed perfectly. We know this because, for the first time, the spacecraft sent simple "beeps" back to Earth, to indicate the basic parameters of its entry, descent through the atmosphere, and landing on Mars. Because previous Mars-bound spacecraft did not have such a capability, it was not possible to definitely determine the causes of those that failed. This was only now possible because NASA has the communications infrastructure in place — two long-lived spacecraft orbiting Mars - -able to relay signals from the spacecraft on its way down, and when it landed, on the surface.

NASA scientists report that Curiosity is exactly where they wanted it to be, close, but not too close, to Mt. Sharp, at the center of Gale Crater. They were able, for the first time, to carry out a pinpoint landing, thanks to a series of maneuvers, carried out automatically by the spacecraft. These included the first guided flight of a craft through Mars's atmosphere, using rocket engines, rather than a ballistic trajectory of simply falling through the sky. Through a series of banks and rolls, based on Apollo's experience of coming back through the Earth's atmosphere, and similar "S-curves" to reduce speed carried out for 30 years by the Space Shuttle, Mars Science Lab controlled its speed and direction during descent, rather than just being in free-fall.

Engineers were fearful that rocket engines large enough to slow the heavy craft to gently land on the surface would kick up too much dust, which would harm Curiosity's scientific instruments. So, for the first time, a Sky Crane was used, which lowered the laboratory on 25-foot-long nylon cables slowly down to rest. The Mars Science Lab was the first test of the kinds of techniques that could be used to gently land a heavy, manned spacecraft on Mars.

For the next few days, engineers and scientists will check out Curiosity's suite of instruments, collecting data as they do so. At a briefing today, outlining the activities for the rover over the next Mars day, Malin Space Sciences engineer Ken Edgett, who worked on Curiosity's suite of cameras, said he has waited for these images for nearly a decade.