NASA's Mars science rover Curiosity's heat shield is
pictured by the Mars Descent Imager after it was
NASA scientists hailed the Mars rover Curiosity's
flawless descent and landing as a "miracle of engineering" as
they scanned early images of an ancient crater that may hold
clues about whether life took hold on Earth's planetary cousin.
The one-tonne, six-wheeled laboratory nailed an intricate and
risky touchdown yesterday, much to the relief and joy of
scientists and engineers eager to conduct NASA's first
astrobiology mission since the 1970s Viking probes.
"We trained ourselves for eight years to think the worst all
the time," Curiosity lead engineer Miguel San Martin said.
"You can never turn that off."
Mission control engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory
near Los Angeles erupted in cheers and applause when
confirmation was received that Curiosity, touted as the first
full-fledged mobile science lab sent to a distant world, had
landed on the Martian surface.
NASA engineers said the feat stands as the most challenging
and elaborate achievement in the history of robotic
spaceflight, and opens the door to a new era in planetary
President Barack Obama hailed the accomplishment as a
historic "point of national pride."
The landing also marked a much-welcome success and a major
milestone for a US space agency beset by budget cuts and the
recent cancellation of its space shuttle programme, NASA's
centerpiece for 30 years.
The landing was a major initial hurdle for a two-year, $2.5
billion project whose primary focus is chemistry and geology.
The daredevil nature of getting the rover to Mars captured
the public's imagination.
Encased in a capsule-like protective shell, the
nuclear-powered rover capped an eight-month voyage as it
streaked into the thin Martian atmosphere at 21,243
kilometers per hour, 17 times the speed of sound.
Plunging through the top of the atmosphere at an angle
producing aerodynamic lift, the capsule's "guided entry"
system used jet thrusters to steer the craft as it fell,
making small course corrections and burning off most of its
Closer to the ground, the vessel was slowed further by a
giant, supersonic parachute before a jet backpack and flying
"sky crane" took over to deliver Curiosity the last mile to
The rover, about the size of a small sports car, came to rest
as planned at the bottom of a vast impact bowl called Gale
Crater, and near a towering mound of layered rock called
Mount Sharp, which rises from the floor of the basin.
A trio of orbiting satellites monitored what NASA had billed
as the "seven minutes of terror," but the anxiety proved to
From an orbital perch 340km away, NASA's sharp-eyed Mars
Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped a stunning and serene picture
of Curiosity gracefully riding beneath its massive parachute
en route to Gale Crater, located near the planet's equator in
its southern hemisphere.
At 5.32 GMT on Monday flight controllers at JPL received the
equivalent of a text message from Curiosity that its journey
of 566 million km had ended safely.
Seven minutes later, the rover transmitted a picture, relayed
by another Mars orbiter called Odyssey, showing one of
Curiosity's wheels on the planet's gravel-strewn surface.
"When you see a picture of the surface of the planet with the
spacecraft on it, that is the miracle of engineering," lead
scientist John Grotzinger told reporters on Monday.
With the late-afternoon sun slipping behind the crater's rim,
Curiosity relayed six more sample pictures and the results of
initial health checks of some of its 10 scientific
instruments before shutting down for the Martian night.