PASADENA, Calif. — NASA’s Curiosity rover has beamed back its first color photo from the ancient crater where it landed on Mars and a video showing the last 2½ minutes of its white-knuckle dive through the Martian atmosphere, a sneak peek of a spacecraft landing on another world.
The picture released Tuesday revealed a rust-tinged, pebbly landscape and the crater rim off in the distance. The six-wheel rover snapped the photo on its first day on the surface after touching down on Mars Sunday night. It took the shot with a camera at the end of its robotic arm, which remained stowed.
As Curiosity plunged through the atmosphere, a video camera captured the final moments. Nearly 300 low-quality thumbnails were sent back on Monday, and NASA processed them into a short video.
As the video rolled on a big screen, 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 Gale Crater.
It was a preview of the spacecraft touchdown on another planet, as it will take some time before high-resolution frames are transmitted, depending on other priorities.
The full video “will just be exquisite,” said Michael Malin, chief scientist of the instrument.
Since parking itself inside a giant crater, Curiosity has steadily streamed home a flurry of photos. The first were grainy, black-and-white images of its wheel, Martian gravel, and a mountain at sunset.
The landscape in the color shot looked fuzzy because the camera was coated with dust as the rover touched the ground.
Curiosity, a roving laboratory the size of a compact car, landed right on target late Sunday after an eight-month, 352-million-mile journey. The nuclear-powered craft will dig into the Martian surface to analyze what is there and hunt for some of the molecular building blocks of life, including carbon.
Extraordinary efforts were needed for the landing because the rover weighs 1 ton, and the thin Martian atmosphere offers little friction to slow down a spacecraft. Curiosity had to go from 13,000 miles per hour to zero in seven minutes, relying on a heat shield, parachute, and rockets to slow down. In the final few seconds, cables lowered it to the ground at 2 miles per hour.
It will not start moving for a couple of weeks because all the systems on the $2.5 billion rover have to be checked out. As it goes through its health checkups this week, it is expected to send back more stunning views of its surroundings.