MSL “Curiosity” Landing event at the Natural History Museum, London

I joined a tense gathering at the Natural History Museum,
just before 6am on Monday 6th August, waiting to find out if the
Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) “Curiosity” would make it safely onto the surface
of Mars.
Experts Dr Peter Grindrod from UCL, Dr Joe Michalski from
the NHM annd Dr Matt Balme from the Open University were on hand as
our panel for the morning, to guide and educate us through the landing as it
happened.
Dr Peter Grindrod, Dr Joe Michalski, Dr Matt Balme
Having seen NASA’s “7
minutes of terror
” video multiple times, I was familiar with the timeline of
events. At 6:17am, the landing had already happened, but the nail biting
telemetry took an extra 14 minutes to be relayed back to Earth.

Amazingly, they received a low resolution picture from the rear
haz camera within minutes of landing. Photographic evidence that a wheel was
safely on the surface and the horizon appeared almost flat, confirmed that the
rover was alive, well, and appeared to have landed upright in a safe level
area.

This video shows the landing, via 297 frames retrieved from the Mars Descent Imager onboard Curiosity.
Talking after landing:
Michalski: “One thing, NASA missions always try to do is to decrease
the size of that landing ellipse. As we move towards bigger missions, perhaps a
sample return mission, we have to eliminate the uncertainty of landing, we need
precision landing.”
Balme: “As a scientist we want to go to places but the
engineers say you can’t go there, its too dangerous. Anything that’ll improve
accuracy means there will be more places that we can go.”
Curiosity descending via parachute, imaged by
the HiRISE Camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
Peter Grindrod then delivered his presentation.  After all the build up, it was great to hear
a presentation finally say “where Curiosity HAS landed!” and “where Curiosity
is!”, rather than hope and other sentiments to date.
Grindrod: “One of the reasons that Curiosity is so exciting
is the sky crane, the way it landed. There are two main reasons why this was so
important:
1)      As
Matt said, it allows us to land in a smaller region than ever before. This will
mean scientists can access more geologically interesting areas.
2)      Much
bigger mass in terms of payload was delivered to the surface, which will lead
to better bigger science than ever before. This may well be the next stage of
exploration.
Gale Crater elevation map with landing ellipse
 I can safely say this is where Curiosity is on the surface
of Mars. This is Gale Crater, an elevation map, where the whites are high and
blues are low. You can see the landing ellipse in red, 7 x 20km, which is
similar to Camden Town, down to Thames at Westminster, from the Natural History Museum to Heathrow.
Gale Crater itself is 155km across. The reason we’re there, is the mound in the
middle, 5-6km of layered rock for Curiosity to explore.
No previous ellipses, Viking, Pathfinder, Phoenix were small
enough to safely land in this crater. We’ve known about Gale Crater for a long
time but just not been able to go there. The mound in the middle is about the same
size as the M25, but it would take MSL much longer to drive round the M25!”
“Bridget”, Astrium’s test rover
Ralph Cordey from Astrium, took the opportunity to tell us a little about their hopes for Exomars, and their test rover, Bridget, was on display.
An informative question and answer session followed, while everyone tried to comprehend what had just happened.  I think many of us had mentally prepared for the worst, and it took the rest of the day and the amazing images released from each new press conference that helped it slowly to sink in.
BBC News spoke to me briefly afterwards and a friend told me later I was on the lunchtime news! I stand by my quote: “Its going to be fantastic science for the next two years, its what NASA needed right now, a real win for them!”.
I include a selection of the interesting articles I have
read since the landing:
JPL live
video during landing.
The three
signals
Adam Seltzner needed to hear before they would declare landing
successful.
One of the first
images
after Curiosity’s mast went up and NASA’s image
gallery
.
How Curiosity hit the perfect
spot
on Mars.
Follow Curiosity
on Twitter. Or for some comedy, follow “Sarcastic Rover” on Twitter.
The women
behind Curiosity’s tweets.
Computer processing limitations.

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