When we looked at the clock last night and realized it was only about 20 minutes before Curiosity was set to land on Mars, I decided to root around and find a Web feed to see if we could watch it in action. Having been warned that there might be a blackout on communication between Curiosity and Earth, I figured it'd be a relatively uneventful web feed, if still a bit dramatic while they waited.
Well, it turned out that the 10-year-old satellite that NASA has in orbit around Mars -- Opportunity -- didn't fail JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) the way they were concerned it might, so they were able to maintain communication throughout and learn how Curiosity had done step-by-step through its complicated landing sequence.
Curiosity started the journey on Nov. 26, 2011, blasting off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, arriving at Mars pretty much exactly on time.
The video starts after a long deceleration that included Curiosity employing a heat shield to enter the Mars atmosphere (thus slowing down from its interplanetary cruising speed) and then free-falling from 81 miles up to 7 miles up, reaching about 900 mph.
At that point, the most crazy-bad supersonic parachute ever deployed opens up and slows the 2000-lb contraption until its braking jets kick in -- I said braking jets -- and Curiosity slows down to basically hover about 65 feet in the air, when the "sky crane" deployed and gently placed the rover on the surface. (This is, for the record, pretty much how Hollywood has always envisioned the Martians invading us.)
The crew seems pretty excited for the 10 minutes prior to where this video starts, presumably because they knew they had access to Opportunity and would receive data on the descent -- instead of waiting minutes or hours for a quiet confirmation from their $2.5 billion rover on the surface.
Remember, though, that because of the 14-minute delay, by the time they do receive word that Curiosity has entered the Martian atmosphere, Curiosity has actually already hit the surface of Mars... they have no control over the landing; just an opportunity to find out "how hard."
The video starts with JPL communications desk saying "ready for sky crane" and saying "down to 10 meters per second" which means Curiosity has decelerated to under 10 miles per hour at about 40 meters above the surface. It continues decelerating quickly to nearly hover, followed by the "sky crane" going into action and placing the rover on the surface.
In case you couldn't hear it for the cheering, the line is: "Touchdown confirmed. We're safe on Mars."
Update: Here's another fun version that NASA has put together that includes their animation of the Curiosity landings along with an edit of the live call from JPL.