At 1:32am EDT, NASA's newest Mars rover, Curiosity, completed one of the most complicated maneuvers in robotic spaceflight to end its almost nine-month trip, successfully landing in the Red Planet's Gale Crater.
The rover's next quest? To find out if Mars has ever been hospitable to microbial life. (Read more about its mission here.)
First, it began sending back images of Mars (view the photo gallery here), with its wheels firmly on the rocky surface. (See bottom right in the photo above.) It also began tweeting cheekily about its triumph.
"Today, the wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze the trail for human footprints on Mars. Curiosity, the most sophisticated rover ever built, is now on the surface of the Red Planet, where it will seek to answer age-old questions about whether life ever existed on Mars -- or if the planet can sustain life in the future," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.
"This is an amazing achievement, made possible by a team of scientists and engineers from around the world and led by the extraordinary men and women of NASA and our Jet Propulsion Laboratory. President Obama has laid out a bold vision for sending humans to Mars in the mid-2030's, and today's landing marks a significant step toward achieving this goal."
President Obama also tweeted his congratulations.
A complicated landing and a sweet triumph
The car-sized rover carries 10 science instruments whose total mass is 15 times those of the science instruments on the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity.
For that reason, it was too big to land with cushions the way previous Mars landers had done. Instead, Curiosity had to land, the Wall Street Journal reports, "through an innovative—and untested—automated system of high-speed maneuvers, a supersonic parachute, eight retro-rockets, and a set of tethers to lower the robot vehicle the last few feet to the ground."
The actual landing was the dress rehearsal and the performance all in one.
At pretty much the exact moment of the scheduled touch down, cheers, whoops and applause rang through the control rooms at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. The control room had heard the electronic "heart-beat" tones relayed from the Curiosity that indicated a successful landing.
Within hours, this victorious image was on the internet:
And the landing was celebrated in other ways:
The landing was validation for NASA, which spent $2.5 billion on the ambitious mission. Curiosity will collect data that will help NASA shape future missions to Mars. Read more about NASA's mission below, and see photos of the landing in the photo gallery:
- The mission of NASA's latest Mars rover, Curiosity
- Curiosity lands on Mars! (photos)
- Watch video footage of Curiosity's final descent to Mars
- What Curiosity's been seeing on Mars (photos)
- Curiosity's first high-res, color, panoramic images from Mars! (photos)
Related on SmartPlanet:
- Mars rover Curiosity powered by nuclear energy
- Looking for the origins of the universe? Head to Chile
- Looking for the origins of the universe in one of Earth's least habitable places (photos)
- How scientists concluded there is water on Mars
- China ramps up space exploration as U.S. program shrinks
- Getting closer and closer to finding an Earth-like planet
- Galaxy has at least 100 billion planets, says new estimate
- SpaceX makes history with commercial space flight
- The historic SpaceX shuttle launch (photos)
photo: top: NASA/JPL-Caltech; bottom: Upworthy