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NASA’s Curiosity rover has lifted its mast and used its high navigation cameras for the first time.

The robot vehicle has returned black and white images that capture part of its own body, its shadow on the ground and views off to the horizon.

Spectacular relief – the rim cliffs of the crater in which the rover landed – can be seen in the distance.

Curiosity – also known as the Mars Science Laboratory, MSL – put down on the Red Planet on Monday (GMT).

The NASA mission came to rest on the floor of a deep depression on Mars’ equator known as Gale Crater, close to a 5.5 km-high mountain.

The plan eventually is to take the robot to the base of this mountain where it is expected to find rocks that were laid down billions of years ago in the presence of liquid water.

Curiosity rover on Mars has returned black and white images that capture part of its own body, its shadow on the ground and views off to the horizon

Curiosity rover on Mars has returned black and white images that capture part of its own body, its shadow on the ground and views off to the horizon

Curiosity will probe these sediments for evidence that past environments on Mars could once have favored microbial life.

Since its landing, engineers have been running through a list of health checks and equipment tests.

These have included deploying a high-gain antenna to provide a data link to Earth additional to the UHF satellite relays it uses most of the time. This antenna failed to point correctly at first, but the problem has now been fixed.

The mast was stowed for the journey to Mars, lying flat on the deck of the rover.

Raising it into the vertical was the main task of Sol 2 – the second full Martian day of surface operations.

Locked in the upright position, the masthead and its cameras stand some 2m above the ground.

Curiosity has two pairs of black and white, greyscale, navigation cameras which can acquire stereo imagery to help the rover pick a path across the surface.

These Navcams sit just to the side of two science cameras – one wideangle, one telephoto. It is these Mastcams that will provide the really exquisite, true color views of the Martian landscape. We should see something of their output following Sol 3.

Most of the pictures we have seen so far have been low-resolution thumbnails – easy to downlink. But we are now starting to get one or two hi-res versions also.

Mike Malin, the principal investigator on Mardi (Mars Descent Imager), has released a detailed view taken of the heatshield as it fell away from the rover’s capsule during Monday’s entry descent and landing (EDL).

Eventually hundreds of Mardi pictures will be run together to make a movie of the descent.

With the rover now on the ground and Mardi still pointing downwards, Mike Malin has also got a good shot of the gravel surface under the vehicle.

One instrument on the rover has already had a chance to gather some data. This is the Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD).

Indeed, this instrument has acquired quite a lot of data so far, as it was working for periods even during the rover’s cruise to Mars.

It is endeavoring to characterize the flux of high-energy atomic and subatomic particles reaching Mars from the Sun and distant exploded stars.

This radiation would be hazardous to any microbes alive on the planet today, but would also constitute a threat to the health of any future astronauts on the Red Planet.

In other news, NASA reports it has now found more components of the landing system discarded by the rover during EDL.

These are a set of six tungsten blocks that the rover’s capsule ejected to shift its centre of mass and help guide its flight through the atmosphere.

Satellite imagery has identified the line of craters these blocks made when they slammed into the ground about 12 km from Curiosity’s eventual landing position.

NASA has also confirmed the precise timing of Monday’s touchdown.

The rover’s computer put this at 05:17:57 UTC on Mars. With a one-way light-travel time of 13 minutes and 48 seconds to cover the 250 million km to Earth, this equates to a receive time here at mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of 05:31:45 UTC (GMT).

 

NASA’s Curiosity rover has just landed on Mars.

The one-ton vehicle was reported to have landed in a deep crater near the planet’s equator at 06:32 BST (05:32 GMT).

It will now embark on a mission of at least two years to look for evidence that Mars may once have supported life.

A signal confirming the rover was on the ground safely was relayed to Earth via NASA’s Odyssey satellite, which is in orbit around the Red Planet.

The success was greeted with a roar of approval here at mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

The mission has even already sent its first low-resolution images – showing the rover’s wheel and its shadow, through a dust-covered lens cap that has yet to be removed.

A first color image of Curiosity’s surroundings should be returned in the next couple of days.

NASA’s Curiosity rover has just landed on Mars

NASA’s Curiosity rover has just landed on Mars

Engineers and scientists who have worked on this project for the best part of 10 years punched the air and hugged each other.

The descent through the atmosphere after a 570-million-km journey from Earth had been billed as the “seven minutes of terror” – the time it would take to complete a series of high-risk, automated manoeuvres that would slow the rover from an entry speed of 20,000 km/h to allow its wheels to set down softly.

The Curiosity team had to wait 13 tense minutes for the signals from Odyssey and the lander to make their way back to Earth.

After the landing, the flight director reported that Curiosity had hit the surface of Mars at a gentle 0.6 metres per second.

“We’re on Mars again, and it’s absolutely incredible,” said NASA administrator Charles Bolden.

“It doesn’t get any better than this.”

The mission team will now spend the next few hours assessing the health of the vehicle (also referred to as the Mars Science Laboratory, MSL).

This is the fourth rover NASA has put on Mars, but its scale and sophistication dwarf all previous projects.

Its biggest instrument alone is nearly four times the mass of the very first robot rover deployed on the planet back in 1997.

Curiosity has been sent to investigate the central mountain inside Gale Crater that is more than 5 km high.

It will climb the rise, and, as it does so, study rocks that were laid down billions of years ago in the presence of liquid water.

The vehicle will be looking for evidence that past environments could have favored microbial life.

Scientists warn, however, that this will be a slow mission – Curiosity is in no hurry.

For one thing, the rover has a plutonium battery that should give it far greater longevity than the solar-panelled power systems fitted to previous vehicles.

“People have got to realize this mission will be different,” commented Steve Squyres, the lead scientist of the Opportunity and Spirit rovers landed in 2004.

“When we landed we only thought we’d get 30 sols (Martian days) on the surface, so we had to hit the ground running. Curiosity has plenty of time,” he said.

Initially, the rover is funded for two years of operations. But many expect this mission to roll and roll for perhaps a decade or more.

 

Curiosity, the big robot rover NASA is sending to Mars, looks in excellent shape for its Monday (GMT) landing.

Curiosity – also known as the Mars Science laboratory (MSL) – was launched from Earth in November last year and is now nearing the end of a 560-million-km journey across space.

To reach its intended touch-down zone in a deep equatorial crater, the machine must enter the atmosphere at a very precise point on the sky.

Engineers told reporters on Thursday that they were close to a bulls-eye.

A slight course correction – the fourth since launch – was instigated last Saturday, and the latest analysis indicates Curiosity will be no more than a kilometre from going straight down its planned “keyhole”.

The team’s confidence is such that it may pass up the opportunity to make a further correction on Friday.

“We are about to land a small compact car on the surface with a trunk-load of instruments. This is a pretty amazing feat getting ready to happen. It’s exciting, it’s daring – but it’s fantastic,” said Doug McCuistion, the head of NASA’s Mars programme.

Curiosity, also known as the Mars Science laboratory, was launched from Earth in November last year and is now nearing the end of a 560-million-km journey across space

Curiosity, also known as the Mars Science laboratory, was launched from Earth in November last year and is now nearing the end of a 560-million-km journey across space

Curiosity is the biggest and most sophisticated Mars rover yet.

It will study the rocks inside Gale Crater, one of the deepest holes on Mars, for signs that the planet may once have supported microbial life.

The $2.5 billion mission is due to touch down at 05:31 GMT Monday 6 August; 22:31 PDT, Sunday 5 August.

It will be a totally automated landing.

Engineers here at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, can only watch and wait.

The vast distance between Mars and Earth means there is a 13-minute lag in communications, making real-time intervention impossible.

NASA has had to abandon the bouncing airbag approach to making soft landings.

This technique was used to great effect on the three previous rovers – Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity.

But at nearly a ton, Curiosity is simply too heavy to be supported by inflated cushions.

Instead, the mission team has devised a rocket-powered, hovering crane to lower the rover to the surface in the final moments of its descent.

Adam Steltzner, who led this work for NASA, said: “It looks a little bit crazy. I promise you it is the least crazy of the methods you could use to land a rover the size of Curiosity on Mars, and we’ve become quite fond of it – and we’re fairly confident that Sunday night will be a good night for us.”

The team is also keeping a sharp eye on the Martian weather and any atmospheric conditions that might interfere with the descent manoeuvres.

It is the equivalent of August also on Mars right now, meaning Gale Crater at its position just inside the southern hemisphere is coming out of winter and moving towards spring.

It is the time of year when winds can kick up huge clouds of dust, and a big storm was spotted this week about 1,000km from the landing site. But NASA expects this storm to dissipate long before landing day.

The first black-and-white images of the surface taken by Curiosity should be returned to Earth in the first hours after touch down, but the mission team do not intend to rush into exploration.

For one thing, the rover has a plutonium battery that should give it far greater longevity than the solar-panelled power systems on previous vehicles.

“This is a very complicated beast,” said Pete Theisinger, Curiosity’s project manager.

“The speech I made to the team is to recognize that on Sunday night at [22:32 PDT], we will have a priceless asset that we have placed on the surface of another planet that could last a long time if we operate it correctly, and so we will be as cautious as hell about what we do with it.”

Curiosity – Mars Science Laboratory:

• Mission goal is to determine whether Mars has ever had the conditions to support life

• Project costed at $2.5 billion; will see initial surface operations lasting two Earth years

• Onboard plutonium generators will deliver heat and electricity for at least 14 years

• 75 kg science payload more than 10 times as massive as those of earlier US Mars rovers

• Equipped with tools to brush and drill into rocks, to scoop up, sort and sieve samples

• Variety of analytical techniques to discern chemistry in rocks, soil and atmosphere

• Will try to make first definitive identification of organic (carbon-rich) compounds

• Even carries a laser to zap rocks; beam will identify atomic elements in rocks