Scientists, residents cheer Mars landing

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LANL: Close to 400 people celebrate at Bradbury

NASA’s Curiosity rover on Monday transmitted a low-resolution video showing the last 2 1/2 minutes of its white-knuckle dive through the Mars atmosphere, giving Earthlings a sneak peek of a spacecraft landing on another world.

As thumbnails of the video flashed on a big screen on Monday, scientists and engineers at the NASA Jet Propulsion let out “oohs” and “aahs.” The recording began with the protective heat shield falling away and ended with dust being kicked up as the rover was lowered by cables inside an ancient crater.

It was a sneak preview since it’ll take some time before full-resolution frames are beamed back depending on other priorities.

The full video “will just be exquisite,” said Michael Malin, the chief scientist of the instrument.

NASA celebrated the precision landing of a rover on Mars and marveled over the mission’s flurry of photographs — grainy, black-and-white images of Martian gravel, a mountain at sunset and, most exciting of all, the spacecraft’s white-knuckle plunge through the red planet’s atmosphere.

The folks at the Jet Propulsion Lab celebrated the landing as did the 400 or so people who flocked to the Bradbury Science Museum Sunday night.

“I was very surprised at the turnout,” Bradbury Museum Director Linda Deck said. “I was expecting about 150 or so. What a great night. This town is just amazing and they just support the lab.”

One of those on hand was school board member Dave Foster.

“I came out because I was curious about Curiosity,” Foster said. “I just feel fortunate to see this in real time and it’s great just to witness such a historical event.”

The big crowd on hand at Bradbury was curious about Curiosity because a lot of the payload on the Rover was developed by the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Especially excited about the landing was ChemCam principal investigator Roger Wiens.

“I can’t describe the feeling when we realized that Curiosity had landed safely on the planet,” Wiens said in a news statement. “My own curiosity about Mars began when I was a boy, and having an instrument that I’ve handled land on the Martian surface fulfills a lifelong dream that started long ago with a backyard telescope. This is an extremely happy, fulfilling moment.”

Wiens and other members of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover ChemCam team got a digital thumbs up about the operational readiness of their instrument just hours after the rover landed on Martian soil late Sunday evening.

Wiens confirmed that the instrument sent word to its handlers on Earth that it was alive and well.

“Following the fantastic landing of Curiosity on Mars, ChemCam proceeded with an aliveness test within an hour of landing,” Wiens announced. “This was essentially the same routine as performed five months earlier in the middle of its cruise (to Mars). We are giving the all-clear from our perspective to raise the (rover) mast on Sol 2. All systems are go!”

The aliveness check means that, as far as the international team of scientists is concerned, ChemCam can begin its next task of transmitting photographic images of the rover as a system check.

The ChemCam instrument combines a high-resolution camera powerful enough to view a human hair from seven feet away with a high-power laser that can zap rocks from a distance of as much as 23-feet to determine their composition.

If everything goes according to plan, ChemCam could fire its first laser pulses at a Martian rock on Sol 10 or 11 (Aug. 18 or 19).

Because Curiosity’s mission is scheduled to last an entire Martian year, or 98 Earth weeks, the MSL science team — comprised of members from each of the rover’s 10 instruments — is proceeding slowly at first to ensure that the vehicle is ready and able to make its slow road trip on a geological sightseeing trip through Gale crater and the slopes of Mount Sharp.

The rover seems to have landed in a good spot within the crater, Wiens said.

“The idea is that the gravel we’re seeing is alluvium coming down from the rim of the crater,” he said. “The alluvium from the rim is potentially more ancient than Mount Sharp,” which some have suggested holds a billion years or more of Martian geological history within its strata.

Some members of the ChemCam team see the alluvial pebbles as a unique, drive-by study opportunity. Los Alamos post-doctoral researcher Nina Lanz, has previously studied rock varnish on Earth rocks. The dark varnish appears on rocks in arid locations like the desert southwest. The weathered coating, while extremely thin, may provide clues about whether Mars once harbored ancient life.

“Rock varnish on Earth is not clearly understood,” Lanz said. “It’s not yet certain whether a biological component is necessary for its formation.”

The ability to study extraterrestrial rock varnish, if no indications of bacterial life are present on Mars, could help scientists better understand terrestrial processes by which these varnishes form on rock, or varnishes could serve as a possible confirmatory test that life was once present at locations beyond Earth and Mars.

ChemCam’s tiny bursts of laser energy can gently vaporize the coating bits at a time until it reaches the pristine rock below. The data from ChemCam’s laser and spectrometer can probe the makeup of rock varnish, or indicate to researchers whether the varnish is contaminated with layers of material from other weather-related geological processes.

“ChemCam is the perfect instrument to see these types of subtle chemistry changes through the surface of rocks,” Lanz said.