Long-distance magic brings another U.S. rover to Mars

NASA/A.M. Costa Rica
‘Curiosity’ team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in
California show their feelings as the first photos come in.

This is not just a news story about a rover the size of an automobile being landed successfully on the surface of Mars. This is a story about how the United States can still do miracles.

The rover, ‘Curiosity,’ landed about 11:30 p.m. Costa Rican time Sunday night. The first photos of the Martian landscape followed quickly.

At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s control center there was jubilation. The whole event was televised live all over the world, and one could not fail to remember those Vangard rockets in 1957 and 1958 exploding just off the pad at Cape Canaveral. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration had made a gutty decision.

There is no way this should have worked. The rover traveled 560 million kilometers (about 350 million miles) to reach a point just a few kilometers from the planned spot. The spacecraft slowed from 21,240 kph (about 13,150 mph) and began an entry that not only was so complex but it resembled a Rube Goldberg cartoon.

The descent device popped out of the interplanetary shell and a parachute deployed, slowing the rover and its rocket platform until the rover automatically jettisoned the parachute. Then the rocket platform ignited to slow the descent even further. As the craft and platform neared the surface, cables lowered the rover to the surface. Two seconds after touching the surface, the rocket platform cut loose and vanished.

This complex landing is why the team in the control room were more than anxious. They cheered as each step took place. Then when the rover signaled it had landed, the room erupted in hugs and handshakes. A large U.S. Flag hung on the wall, evoking memories of Apollo 11, its successful moon landing 43 years ago and a similar control room scene.

The $2.5 billion ‘Curiosity’ has 17 cameras, a robotic arm, a laser and a drill. It is designed to study the Martian geology.

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