And here we go again. Reduced almost to tears by the reporting of a small plaintive electronic tone from several hundred million miles out.
I am amazed as usual at the detailed picture that control can produce from a series of short tone signals. Twelve thousand miles per hour, the lander has separated from the cruise stage and is facing atmosphere alone.
Wayne Lee, the head of the EDL team, does a masterful job of narrating the plunge. His American Flag Polo shirt just as garish as last time, he (like mission controllers for all their short history) is happy to invoke whatever luck he can find. Spirit came in OK while he wore that shirt; we'll watch it again.
Acceleration tones come in, faster than Wayne can explain to us viewers. The lander reports increasing gee forces - up to between 6 and 7 gravities at one point. The heat shield is at several thousand degrees; it entered the Martian atmosphere at approximately 28 times the speed of sound. A few thousand feet off the surface, it's down to Mach three or four.
Another tone as the lander informs us it's attempted to dump the heat shield. There are a few moments of expectation, and then confirmation comes in. The parachute open tone comes in, and cheers break out in JPL mission control, there are a whole lot of smiles.
They're waiting for the on-board radar altimeter to get a solid lock on the surface rushing up beneath. There; lock. It's calculated a retro-rocket burn for a few seconds away, and tones indicate the burn has occurred - the airbags have inflated, and...
Opportunity is down, and apparently so far OK. The lander has signaled that it is rolling slowly across the plain, and we're waiting for it to stop. We'll see if we get lucky again and it lands right-side-up.
Imagined violence only, but the thunderous sounds that even in that atmosphere would be impressive, and the fires of re-entry. I wish I could see it.
Al Gore, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and other politicos crowd the consoles, eager for photo ops and to bask in the reflected glory of a small Tonka-bot now far from home.
I pour another Lagavulin and fondly toast my small mech friend, so far away.