View from NASA's MSL "Curiosity" Rover
View from NASA's MSL "Curiosity" Rover

Last Sunday, NASA scored a long-distance touchdown (a very long distance, with the goal posts fully 150 million miles away) on Mars! The Mars Science Laboratory, nicknamed “Curiosity” by essay winner Clara Ma, is now the largest, most complex and science-capable lander ever to have set down on the Red Planet.

More on that later. Now, a bit of reminiscing on a similar event that happened 36 years ago–one that, to me, was in certain ways even more exciting. It was Viking 1, the first successful landing on Mars, which set down in Chryse Planitia on July 20, 1976 (seven years to the day from the first manned Moon landing).

I recall clearly standing on my knees in front of the television (in a room that, coincidentally, my parents had decorated in orange) waiting for the newscast to reveal the first-ever images from the surface of Mars. THAT was excitement. I had read so many sci-fi stories about Mars and had drooled over many artists concepts of what this other world might look like that waiting to see the first photograph from ground level was simply electrifying.

Upon seeing the image appear on the TV, my first reaction was, “Look! There’s a rock!” I had expected to see rocks, but first laying eyes on actual Martian rocks, seeing their shapes, textures, and details, was like being the first person to step onto another world. When I saw little piles of sand next to some of those rocks, more of that until-then unrevealed world unfolded. The sky was bright, not dark as the airless skies of our familiar Moon are. In later pictures from both Viking landers, seeing Earth-style features like cirrus clouds in the sky and water frost on the ground was more icing on the cake.

Back to last Sunday. At Chabot, we were packed with people who had come to witness the landing of Curiosity on the big TV screens of our planetarium and theater domes. This landing was different from that of Viking 1, of course; we are now very familiar with the surface of Mars, not only as revealed by the cadre of landers and rovers—the Vikings, Pathfinder, Spirit, Opportunity, and Phoenix—but by the hi-resolution spy-cam (HiRISE) of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. We’d seen landings before, and though each one was in a different location with different geography to gawk at, the common look and feel of Mars has long been a part of our experience.

Every time the NASA/JPL landing crew announced another milestone met, the crowd applauded along with JPL. The spacecraft has touched the upper atmosphere—applause! The heat shield has separated—applause! The parachute has deployed—double applause! As the distance to the surface grew shorter and shorter, a buzz of anticipation grew. And, touchdown! Huge applause! The crowds are going wild….

We all waited for the first image from Curiosity—something we weren’t sure we’d get right away, as NASA wasn’t making promises. As it turned out, the first image, taken by one of Curiosity’s 17 cameras (a hazard avoidance camera), appeared on JPL’s screen within minutes of landing. One JPL crewmember pointed at the little square on the monitor and shouted, “Look! A thumbnail!” I thought of my own first revelation on seeing the Viking 1 image: “Look! A rock!”

The thumbnail was 64×64 pixels, and it was hard to make out what it was showing, but that didn’t matter: it was the first image from an entirely new place on Mars, and it earned the loudest and longest round of applause of all. A subsequent 256×256 sized version, uploaded to the orbiting Mars Odyssey and then relayed to Earth, showed in more detail what the thumbnail had tried to convey: rocks, soil, and Curiosity’s shadow cast across the milieu.

Now begins the new adventure as Curiosity, starting at the foot of a mountain in the middle of Gale Crater, commences a journey of discovery up the slopes of sedimentary material built up over 2 billion years of Mars’ history. What story will Curiosity read to us from the leaves of those layers, that giant book? Stay tuned.


Ben Burress

Benjamin Burress has been a staff astronomer at Chabot Space & Science Center since July 1999. He graduated from Sonoma State University in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in physics (and minor in astronomy), after which he signed on for a two-year stint in the Peace Corps, where he taught physics and mathematics in the African nation of Cameroon. From 1989-96 he served on the crew of NASA’s Kuiper Airborne Observatory at Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA. From 1996-99, he was Head Observer at the Naval Prototype Optical Interferometer program at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ. Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.

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