NASA rover sends back 1st color picture of Mars

 NASA's Curiosity rover has transmitted its first color photo and a low-resolution video showing the last two-and-a-half minutes of its dramatic dive through the Martian atmosphere, giving a sneak peek of a spacecraft landing on another world.

As thumbnails of the video flashed on a big screen yesterday, scientists and engineers at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory 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. The full video "will just be exquisite," said Michael Malin, the chief scientist of the instrument.

The first color photo from the crater where Curiosity landed showed a pebbly landscape and the rim of Gale Crater off in the distance. Curiosity snapped the photo on its first day on the surface after touching down Sunday night.

The rover took the shot with a camera at the end of its robotic arm. The landscape looked fuzzy because the camera's removable cover was coated with dust that kicked up during the descent. 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 plunge through the red planet's atmosphere.

Curiosity is the heaviest piece of machinery NASA has landed on Mars, and the success gave the space agency confidence that it can unload equipment that astronauts may need in a future manned trip to the red planet. The roving laboratory, the size of a compact car, landed right on target after an eight-month, 566-million-kilometre journey. It parked its six wheels about 6 kilometres from its ultimate science destination Mount Sharp, rising from the floor of Gale Crater near the equator.

Extraordinary efforts were needed for the landing because the rover weighs one ton, and the thin Martian atmosphere offers little friction to slow down a spacecraft. Curiosity had to go from 21,000 kilometres per hour to zero in seven minutes, unfurling a parachute, then firing rockets to brake. In a Hollywood-style finish, cables delicately lowered it to the ground at 3 kilometres per hour.

At the end of what NASA called "seven minutes of terror," the vehicle settled into place almost perfectly flat in the crater it was aiming for. 

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