‘Now it is six big wheels’

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iol scitech aug 7 mars REUTERS An image taken by Nasa's Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in the Gale Crater, showing Mount Sharp in the distance.

Cape Town - Curiosity, the latest and most expensive Mars Rover, has touched down on the red planet. Like every other space-travelling nuclear-powered geochemistry laboratory, it couldn’t wait to hit up Twitter.

“It was once one small step, now it is six big wheels,” tweeted the spacecraft on Monday.

While the Mars Rover may have been cracking jokes afterwards, it wasn’t an easy landing. Nasa dubbed the 21 000km/h plummet required to put Curiosity on the planet’s surface as “seven minutes of terror”.

When the news came through that the car-sized explorer had survived its journey unscathed, engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge were overcome with joy, reportedly hugging, high-fiving, back-smacking and even weeping.

To be fair, a few tears were in order. They had been working and waiting for 10 years to hear those two magic words: “Touchdown confirmed”.

The journey to Mars involved traversing 247 million kilometres of outer-space (the equivalent of going around the world about 6 000 times) over the course of eight months.

Its landing has placed the spacecraft in the centre of the giant Gale Crater, which it will spend the next two years exploring. Curiosity is equipped with a set of powerful instruments enabling it to drill through rock, detect radiation and even ingest samples, relaying the data to mission control.

The $2.5 billion (R20bn) mission is set to revolutionise our understanding of Mars, a planet which is, or once was, capable of fostering life. The most likely scenario is that any life on the red planet will be in its microbial (read: tiny) form.

While putting the Rover on Mars was a display of technical brilliance, the spacecraft’s early photographic efforts left a lot to be desired. “What the f*** is this?” commented one of the users on the social media website, Reddit.

In a series of black-and-white images, the spacecraft showed off its jagged shadow and designer wheels sitting on the surface of the not-so-red planet. The low-resolution was intended, as the cameras used to shoot the pictures are designed to relay information quickly for navigational purposes. Larger colour images are expected later when the rover’s mast, carrying high-resolution cameras, is deployed, with a slew of photos set to accompany Curiosity’s business trip. - Cape Argus

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