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Associated Press photos
NASA’s Curiosity rover and its parachute, left, descend to the Martian surface on Sunday. The inset image is a cutout of the rover stretched to avoid saturation.

Mars rover offers out-of-world pics

This photo shows the gravel on the surface of Mars’ Gale Crater, where the rover landed. Its wheel is at lower right.

– NASA celebrated the precision landing of a rover on Mars and marveled over the mission’s first photographs Monday – grainy, black-and-white images of Martian gravel, a mountain at sunset and, most exciting of all, the spacecraft’s white-knuckle plunge through the Red Planet’s atmosphere.

Curiosity, a roving lab the size of a compact car, landed right on target late Sunday after an eight-month, 352 million-mile journey.

Cheers and applause echoed through NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and engineers hugged, high-fived and thrust their fists in the air after signals from space indicated the vehicle had survived the harrowing descent through Mars’ pinkish atmosphere.

JPL Director Charles Elachi likened the team to Olympic athletes: “This team came back with the gold.”

“Everybody in the morning should be sticking their chests out and saying, ‘That’s my rover on Mars,’ ” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said on NASA TV.

Extraordinary efforts were needed for the landing because the rover weighs 1 ton, and the thin Martian atmosphere offers little friction to slow a spacecraft down. Curiosity had to go from 13,000 mph 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 2 mph.

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.

The nuclear-powered Curiosity will dig into the Martian surface to analyze what’s there and hunt for some of the molecular building blocks of life, including carbon.

It won’t start moving for a couple of weeks, because all the systems on the $2.5 billion rover have to be checked out. Color photos, panoramas and video will start coming in the next few days.

But first NASA had to use tiny cameras designed to spot hazards in front of Curiosity’s wheels. So early images of gravel and shadows abounded. The pictures were fuzzy, but scientists were delighted.

The photos show “a new Mars we have never seen before,” Watkins said. “So every one of those pictures is the most beautiful picture I have ever seen.”

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.

“I think it’s engineering at its finest. What engineers do is they make the impossible possible,” former NASA chief technologist Bobby Braun said.

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