JPL celebrates Mars landing

A proud lead team of John Grunsfield, Charles Elachi, Pete Theisinger, Richard Cook, Adam Steltzner and John Grotzinger, triumphantly raise their hands at JPL at the post landing press conference in 2012 with the principals who successfully landed the Mars Rover Curiosity. The rover just passed one year on the planet. (Tim Berger / Staff Photographer / August 5, 2012)

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory was buzzing Monday over the one-year anniversary of Curiosity's touchdown on Mars to explore the 3-mile-high Mt. Sharp and to look for signs of past life.

To celebrate the rover's landmark, JPL held a party, kicked off by a panel discussion in an auditorium full of enthusiastic employees.

Emceed by Chief Scientist Dan McCleese, the presentation recapped the harrowing "7 Minutes of Terror," the name given to a video that described the seven minutes from Curiosity's initial penetration of the Martian atmosphere to its landing.

In only seven minutes, the rover had to slow its 13,000 mph speed, release its heat shield, unfurl a giant parachute, use rockets as brakes once the parachute was cut loose, and finally be deposited gently by cables dangling from a "stage" that would then fly off to avoid colliding with the rover.

That's a lot that can go wrong, especially when it's all happening on autopilot.

"At that point, you know it's out of your hands. You can't send any commands to the rover," said Bobak "Mohawk Man" Ferdowsi, whose hairstyle became an Internet meme during the control room broadcast of the landing.

Allen Chen, who led the control room team during those tense seven minutes and acted as play-by-play announcer for the viewing public, confessed during the panel discussion that for a moment, he thought the mission was doomed.

During Curiosity's descent, the rover sent signals, or "tones," every 10 seconds to update mission control on its status, which Chen listened to and decoded. Shortly after hitting the atmosphere, Curiosity chirped a tone that almost made Chen's heart stop — it translated to "catastrophic," implying that the rover was about to fall apart.

"I bet if you go back and rewatch the video, you can see me seize up," Chen said. "I'm a terrible poker player."

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