It was spectacularly ambitious and terrifying complicated, but at 10:31pm Pacific time, the MSL rover, Curiosity, touched down softly on the surface of Mars, and sent back its first thumbnail image of the horizon through a fisheye lens.
I watched the rover’s launch in November from my bedroom and shed a private tear of pride and hope. Tonight I was at NASA Ames in California, sharing many tears of happiness and relief. Nearly ten thousand people packed out the parade ground inside Ames, watching the two huge screens as mission control checked off each automated stage from NASA’s JPL in Pasadena. Ripples of applause at the switching of antennae and data feeds turned to hearty cheers and then whoops and shouts of delight as entry began, the parachute was deployed, the retro-boosters set in, and finally, MSL touched down on Mars. It’s hard to believe any image has caused such universal joy as that first 64×64 thumbnail of the Martian surface.
Over the last few weeks I had become increasingly tired of watching NASA’s cinematic ’7 minutes of terror’ trailer, and explaining the to best of my knowledge the intricacies of the upcoming landing. But the event tonight, experienced not only by the scientists involved, and the thousands packed into NASA centres across America, but by the whole world through unrivalled live streaming, is something that can not be easily explained or forgotten. Watching the landing, I had chills that had nothing to do with the coolness of the night, and seeing its success, there is a warmth and elation that is nothing to do with the celebratory swigs of fizz.
We have landed toys on Mars before, small rovers the size of remote control cars, and barely better equipped. In comparison, the behemoth we have just lowered out of the sky from a freaking jet pack, is a fully equipped geochemical and geological laboratory. It’s the size of a small car and weighs nearly a tonne, and we’ve just airlifted it from 500,000 miles away. It’s going to tell us more about the geological and habitable history than we’ve ever known before, and I get to work with that data to look for traces of past life. It’s going to be an unbelievably exciting couple of years.
But first, I’m just going to bask in scientific glory and pride. Today we touched Mars with curiosity, and Curiosity survives to tell the tale. What a fucking awesome time to be here.