They were chanting "Science! Science! Science!" and "NASA! NASA! NASA!" in Times Square last night, as the Curiosity rover touched down on Mars at about 1:30 am Eastern time.
The best parts are yet to come. As chemistry professor and blogger Matthew Hartings pointed out this morning, Curiosity is, fundamentally, a chemistry project. Curiosity will search for the chemical building blocks of life, it will study the make-up of the soil and atmosphere, it will look at planetary water cycles and the effects of cosmic radiation. The long-range goal, as you've probably picked up by now, is to put human beings on Mars—maybe by as soon as the 2030s. Curiosity is the chemistry that will help make that very ambitious sort of awesome possible.
We'll be staying tuned for cool stuff coming in from Curiosity. In the meantime, I wanted to point you toward some swell videos, photos, jokes, and essays that have turned up in the last nine hours.
First off, if you slept through the event or just want to relive the excitement, the video above captures the five minutes before and five minutes after Curiosity made landing. The actual touchdown happens about at about mark 5:30, and the first images come through at 7:30.
And, speaking of images …
This teeny shot shows Curiosity and its trusty parachute landing on the Martian surface.
The Curiosity rover Twitter account posted this photo of the Martian surface (plus a wheel) last night.
Time magazine's Keith Wagstaff was in Times Square, reporting as the small, jaded, underwhelmed crowd slowly grew in both size and enthusiasm.
At 11:30pm EDT, when NASA started broadcasting coverage of the event, the crowd was thin and slightly underwhelmed. Many complained to me that the Toshiba Vision screen, dwarfed by a blinding Dunkin' Donuts advertisement below it, was hard to see and that the only audio provided was through a smartphone app that seemed to be running a minute behind the visuals.
"NASA is a passing thing," said Ben Brittain, an otherwise enthusiastic 19-year-old computer science student from the Rochester Institute for Technology. "I'm pretty sure this is going to be the last big thing NASA does."
As the night, cool and wet thanks to a passing thunderstorm, went on, people began trickling in from every direction. … Finally, 1:30am hit. Times Square was packed. People looked up intently with buds in their ears, listening to the back-and-forth chatter of scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles.
A cheer erupted. The rover's first picture — a 256-pixel-by-256-pixel image of its own shadow against the Gale crater — was greeted with the hoots and applause normally reserved for winning touchdowns.
Philip Bump has a lovely essay over at Grist this morning, talking about the Olympics, Curiosity, human endeavor, and how very, very difficult it is to build something and have it work as perfectly as Curiosity did last night.
Jettisoning the carrier that moved it through open space, dropping its heat shield, then deploying a "sky crane" that would lay the car-sized rover on the surface of the planet before flying away. All of this had to happen in a seven minute window — without any contact with Earth.
It's impossible to believe that it could work. That we could plan and build this nesting-doll piece of technology, launch it into space, land it in the spot we picked, and have it all still be working at the end. Fifty years ago, the idea of hitting Mars with anything, anywhere was pretty optimistic. One hundred years ago, leaving the atmosphere was an impossibility. But this was what we decided to do. Do the math, build it, throw it up there.
Meanwhile, on Earth, other bots were working less well as Scripps News Service managed to temporarily take down NASA's YouTube Curiosity footage via a spurious claim of copyright infringement. It's fixed now. But Motherboard's Alex Pasternack recorded the takedown notice for posterity.
YouTube's system is also heavily biased in favor of claimants, and a system that is increasingly controlling of content that has serious educational or scientific value, or arguably falls under "fair use" provisions. Claims of fair use of video content are immaterial to the Content ID or DMCA takedown system. Creative remixes are easy targets, as are videos of teenagers singing Christmas songs. As I discovered last year, many of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speeches are no longer available on YouTube thanks to automatic and manual copyright claims by the owner of King's speeches, the British music giant EMI Publishing. This despite the fact that YouTube is still a haven for illegal and uncontested uploads of millions of hours of Hollywood and music material.
And because anyone can claim a YouTube video belongs to them, YouTube's system allows cheaters to direct traffic (and ad revenue) to their uploads. (Some preferred companies, like Universal Music Group, can even block videos immediately, without filing a claim.)
In less serious news, NASA's Mission Activity lead on the Curiosity landing, Bobak Ferdowsi, has literally become an overnight Internet celebrity thanks to his multi-colored mohawk. You can see fan art of Ferdowsi at The Atlantic, or buzz over to the Tumblr that has already been created in his honor.
Personally, I think Ferdowsi needs to tour America's schools, promoting the awesomeness of space alongside Space-X's rocket scientist/1970s vice cop Kevin Brogan.
And speaking of awesome scientists: Check out this profile of the guy who will be driving Curiosity around. CNN's Elizabeth Landau interviews Scott Maxwell, who also drove Spirit and Opportunity:
The baby, of course, is the SUV-sized Curiosity, coming to Mars after years of planning and preparation. It's been more than eight months since it left Earth, and no one can be sure exactly how it will behave, says Maxwell.
Over dinner in Old Pasadena this week, Maxwell and his girlfriend, Kim Lichtenberg—a planetary scientist also working on the rover mission—playfully compared it to having a child, though neither has had children.
"We're all going to be kind of like new parents," Lichtenberg says.
"Watch it take its first steps," Maxwell adds.
Finally, a few links:
See more of the first images sent back by Curiosity at Wired
Check out NASA's official Curiosity page
Watch all the pre-landing videos on NASA JPL's UStream site
Xeni was at JPL last night, live tweeting on the official BoingBoing feed