Mars enthusiasts underwhelmed by some of the first dusty images of the planet to be beamed back to Earth by the Curiosity rover that landed there on Sunday were reassured by NASA Tuesday that more stunning photos will be coming over the next few days as the mobile scientific laboratory robot unfurls its mast and tests its instruments.
"I'm sure that there will be lots of surprises as we continue," said Mike Watkins, NASA's mission manager, at a press conference at the space agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.
Curiosity, which landed on Mars Sunday night Pacific Time, is scheduled to raise its mast Wednesday, and that will open up more of the 17 cameras that adorn the machine.
Some of the new images will arrive as thumbnails at first, but full resolution photos will be on their way a week later.
Over the mission's first 10 sols, or Martian days, NASA scientists will begin an initial health check-up of the rover to make sure its instruments are still functioning after the landing and in Mars's gravitational field.
During this commissioning phase, Curiosity will make its first drive.
1st colour image relased
Prior to Tuesday's press conference, NASA released a new colour image from the surface of Mars taken by some of the 17 cameras on the rover along with a low-resolution video of Curiosity's descent, giving earthlings a sneak peek of a spacecraft landing on another world.
The image shows the first colour view of the north wall and rim of Gale Crater where Curiosity landed. The picture was taken by a camera at the end of the rover's stowed robotic arm and appears fuzzy because of dust on the camera's cover, which hadn't fully been opened yet.
As thumbnails of the video flashed on a big screen on Monday, scientists and engineers at mission control in Pasadena let out "oohs" and "aahs." The recording began with the rover's protective heat shield falling away and ended with dust being kicked up as the rover was lowered by cables inside the ancient crater.
It was a sneak preview, since it'll take some time before full-resolution frames are beamed back depending on other priorities.
The full video "will just be exquisite," said Michael Malin, the chief scientist of the instrument.
NASA celebrated the precision landing of a rover on Mars and marveled over the mission's flurry of photographs — 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 laboratory the size of a compact car, landed right on target late Sunday after an eight-month, 352-million-mile journey. It parked its six wheels about four miles from its ultimate science destination — Mount Sharp, rising from the floor of Gale Crater near the equator.
Extraordinary efforts were needed for the landing because the rover weighs one ton, and the thin Martian atmosphere offers little friction to slow down a spacecraft. 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.
"We have ended one phase of the mission much to our enjoyment," mission manager Mike Watkins said. "But another part has just begun."
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. Colour photos and panoramas 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."
In one of the photos from the close-to-the-ground hazard cameras, if you squinted and looked the right way, you could see "a silhouette of Mount Sharp in the setting sun," said an excited John Grotzinger, chief mission scientist from the California Institute of Technology.
A high-resolution camera on the orbiting 7-year-old Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, flying 211 miles directly above the plummeting Curiosity, snapped a photo of the rover dangling from its parachute about a minute from touchdown. The parachute's design can be made out in the photo.
"It's just mind-boggling to me," said Miguel San Martin, chief engineer for the landing team.
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 to the red planet.
'This thing is elegant'
The landing technique was hatched in 1999 in the wake of devastating back-to-back Mars spacecraft losses. Back then, engineers had no clue how to land super-heavy spacecraft. They brainstormed different possibilities, consulting Apollo-era engineers and pilots of heavy-lift helicopters.
"I think it's engineering at its finest. What engineers do is they make the impossible possible," said former NASA chief technologist Bobby Braun. "This thing is elegant. People say it looks crazy. Each system was designed for a very specific function."
Because of budget constraints, NASA cancelled its joint U.S.-European missions to Mars, scheduled for 2016 and 2018.
"When's the next lander on Mars? The answer to that is nobody knows," Bolden said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
But if Curiosity finds something interesting, he said, it could spur the public and Congress to provide more money for more Martian exploration. No matter what, he said, Curiosity's mission will help NASA as it tries to send astronauts to Mars by the mid-2030s.