As practically everyone knows, the rover Curiosity landed safely on the surface of Mars Sunday night. This is a big deal for NASA, JPL, the USA, and humankind, but it's a big deal for me because my husband works for JPL and he worked specifically on MSL AKA Curiosity. Back in November, when the rover launched out of Cape Canaveral, Derek and I got up early to watch it online. It was thrilling, watching it fly off into space, but it was also a bit nerve-wracking. So much work and money had gone into that project. It had a long journey to Mars and a difficult, never-tried-before landing.
Eight months later, on Sunday, August 5, 2012, around 10:30PM PDT, the rover landed. Its landing was tricky. Curiosity arrived at the planet's atmosphere going about 7,500 miles per hour. For a reference point, consider that a Boeing 757 (that's the single-aisle airplane that's common for cross-country flights) has a cruising speed of 530 miles per hour. My mind can hardly grasp a speed like 7,500 miles per hour, but that's how fast the rover was going. Between the time it reached the atmosphere and the time it landed, it had to slow down to nothing. Not only that, but it had to use a parachute to slow down, then it used a hovering sky crane to lower itself gently down to the surface. Honestly, the more you know about the landing operation, the more stressful it is - and the more shocking it is that the whole process went off without a hitch.
Since Derek worked on the project, we got to go to a landing party at Cal Tech. The party was great. We ate little snack boxes of fruit and cheese and drank bottles of "Martian Water". We sat with two of our friends, one of whom worked on the camera that took the first pictures after the rover's landing. Before the official NASA broadcast began, they showed little videos about the "7 Minutes of Terror" (as if anyone there needed to be more terrified). I heard Wil Wheaton did a video about the landing with JPL which I was hoping they would show, but they didn't. At least not after I arrived. You can watch it here, though.
While we were waiting for the official broadcast to begin, something cool happened: the International Space Station flew right overhead! I would have mistaken it for an airplane if I was alone, but given that I was surrounded by a bunch of NASA scientists, one guy ran up to the microphone and pointed it out. The whole crowd clapped as it flew overhead. It was like a good omen. One of my friends explained that the ISS circles the planet every 90 minutes, but all kinds of things interfere with our ability to see it, so Sunday night was a rare treat.
Everything got really exciting once the NASA broadcast began. The cameras were in the ops room, which I've seen in person, but I've never seen it full of people. And the rest . . . well, you don't need to hear it from me. At least a thousand different news sites have covered it. (A solid source of info is MSL's page on JPL's website.) The rover landed perfectly and the whole crowd at the Cal Tech party cheered and congratulated each other. Derek was getting so many excited text messages from friends that he couldn't keep up with them all. The first pictures came back from the rover only minutes after the landing. I love the one where the rover is looking at its own shadow in the Martian sunset. It's like it's saying, "Look, Mom, I'm here!"
After the Cal Tech event ended, we went to a nearby pub. It was 11PM on a Sunday night and there was standing room only. I couldn't believe it. I'm not big on crowds like that, so I hid outside until one of our friends pushed her way through the crowd and ordered drinks. Her gumption paid off when two of the tables behind her spontaneously vacated. We sat down, I ordered a slice of pie, and everything was well with the world.
Being in the pub that night was one of the coolest experiences ever. It was filled to the brim with scientists who were all celebrating a momentous collaborative achievement. Everyone congratulated each other, and everyone clapped whenever a new image from the rover popped up on TV. You know how bars usually have their TVs tuned to various sporting events? Well, on Sunday night, every TV was showing the NASA channel. How awesome is that?
The whole event still feels like a dream. For eight months we've been worrying about MSL's landing. It's such a relief that the mission has so far been a success, and it's been surreal to see how much enthusiasm everybody is showing for JPL. MSL has its own twitter account, and some its tweets are surprisingly dirty ("Gale Crater I am in you"?) Even The Oatmeal made a spoof about the first landing picture! I love how much credit all the JPLers are getting for their work. I don't think I'm being too biased when I say they deserve every bit of it.