Curiosity already is sending back its first grainy black-and-white images of Mars, taken through the fish-eye lens of its hazard-avoidance cameras. And NASA on Monday released a photograph taken from its High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment on board the Mars Reconnaissance orbiter as the rover drifted downward, suspended by a parachute, on its last leg of the flight.
When Curiosity landed on Mars on Monday, Aug. 6, NASA administrator Charles Bolden referred to it as a "harrowing landing" and President Obama called it "an unprecedented feat of technology." Following are 10 facts that help explain why the occasion was so historic.
1. After 36 weeks in space, Curiosity touched down within one minute of schedule. NASA put the official landing time on Mars' surface as 1:32 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Aug. 6, one minute later than the time the space agency estimated months ago.
[Read about Microsoft's contribution to Mars' exploration. NASA, Microsoft Reveal Mars In Pictures.]
2. Curiosity landed on target, at the foot of a mountain three miles tall and 96 miles across inside the Gale Crater. NASA originally had set a landing target that was 12 miles wide by 16 miles long. But the space agency, citing increased confidence in its landing technology, in June reset its goal on a target area half that size.
3. NASA employed a relay system to receive confirmation of the landing. The direct line of communications was obstructed by the Earth's horizon as the landing craft approached Mars' surface. So, the Mars Odyssey orbiter, which had been repositioned a few weeks ago to better monitor the landing, relayed confirmation to the space agency's Deep Space Network antenna station in Canberra, Australia, which in turn relayed the news to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.
4. The rover returned its first view of Mars, a wide-angle scene of rocky ground near the front of the rover, just minutes after landing (see photo below). At a 9 a.m. PDT press conference, scientists said their first surprise was "the rather uniform grain size of the coarser particles" seen in the image. When Curiosity deploys its mast later in the week, the cameras positioned there will begin to transmit high-resolution images in color. The rover has 17 cameras in all.
5. Curiosity changed speed as it entered the final stage of its journey, speeding up, then slowing down. The spacecraft approached Mars at 8,000 miles per hour, then, when it hit the top of Mars' atmosphere, gravity pulled it in at about 13,200 mph. With its "sky crane" landing technique, the rover slowed to 1.7 mph. as it touched down.
6. Weather was good for Curiosity's descent, despite the threat of a dust storm."Mars is cooperating by providing good weather for landing," Ashwin Vasavada, the deputy project scientist for Curiosity, said as the rover approached its destination.
7. Curiosity, the size of an SUV, was lowered in a delicate sequence of events by thruster rockets, a 51-foot-wide parachute, and nylon cords.
8. At this point, scientists don't know where the lander--the jetpack that lowered Curiosity to the surface--crashed. As soon as the lander released the rover, rocket thrusters moved it far away from the science mission, to keep it from contaminating the rover's surroundings.
9. Curiosity carries 10 science instruments, some of them being used for the first time on a Mars mission, such as a laser-firing instrument that can check the elemental composition of rocks from a distance. It will use a drill and scoop at the end of a robotic arm to gather soil and rock interiors, then move the samples to its lab instruments.
10. NASA puts the cost of the Curiosity mission at $2.5 billion, which includes spacecraft development, science investigations, and the cost of launch and operations.
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