Ken Herkenhoff reports from JPL as the MSL Curiosity Rover lands on Mars
5 August 2012
All three of the USGS scientists involved in MSL are in a large
conference room in JPL building 321, along with over 400 other science team
members. The tension in the room is rising as MSL approaches Mars. Mars
Odyssey is in position and sending a good signal, ready to relay data from
MSL during descent. Each announcement (via video from the Mission Support
Area in a nearby building at JPL) is greeted with applause and cheers:
Good signal from Odyssey, cruise stage separation, turn to entry attitude,
etc. A few minutes ago, the Project Science Office led a brief "all hands"
meeting of the science team, encouraging us to work as a team, be patient,
and above all, have fun!
With 5 minutes to entry, it is quiet both in the MSA and in Bldg.
321. Because the radio signals from Mars take over 14 minutes to reach
Earth, MSL has already landed successfully (or perhaps not), but we won't
know for a while. This is the most critical phase of the entire mission,
and must be executed perfectly by the spacecraft computer without any
control from Earth. I haven't been nervous all day, but my heart rate is
now quickening. The outcome of EDL will have a major effect on my career,
but there is nothing I can do about it except watch with everyone else.
What a crazy business! But I love it.
As MSL descends through the atmosphere, it will not be visible from
Earth, so its radio signals must be relayed by Odyssey. So a cheer goes up
when Odyssey data is first received. Another big cheer when the parachute
deployment is reported. Direct communication to Earth is lost as expected,
just before the lander separates from the parachute and retro-rockets
start. Another cheer as sky crane starts! When the signal is received
showing that MSL has landed successfully, everyone in the MSA and in 321
jump up at once, cheering and clapping loudly. Within a few minutes the
first pictures from MSL Hazard Avoidance Cameras are received via Odyssey
and even louder cheers erupt from both rooms.
Given the successful landings of Mars Pathfinder and both Mars
Exploration Rovers, I should have expected another success, but I wasn't.
MSL is so much more complex than previous missions, and the EDL so much
more difficult, that I was prepared for the worst. My heart is still
racing, many minutes after landing. I'm on second shift (uplink), so I
have to get some sleep before returning to JPL by 5:30 tomorrow morning. I
don't know how I will be able to sleep!
Read more on how the USGS is involved with the MSL mission…
Read official USGS press release…