In a show of technological wizardry, the robotic explorer Curiosity blazed through the pink skies of Mars, steering itself to a gentle landing inside a giant crater for the most ambitious dig yet into the red planet’s past.
A chorus of cheers and applause echoed through the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) on Sunday night after the most high-tech interplanetary rover ever built signaled it had survived a harrowing plunge through the thin Mars atmosphere.
“Touchdown confirmed,” engineer Allen Chen said. “We’re safe on Mars.”
Minutes after the landing signal reached Earth at 10:32pm, Curiosity beamed back the first black-and-white pictures from inside the crater showing its wheel and its shadow, cast by the afternoon sun.
“It looks like we landed in a nice, flat spot. Beautiful, really beautiful,” said engineer Adam Steltzner, who led the team that devised the tricky landing routine.
It was NASA’s seventh landing on Earth’s neighbor; many other attempts by the US and other countries to zip past, circle or set down on Mars have gone awry.
The arrival was an engineering tour de force, debuting never before tried acrobatics packed into “seven minutes of terror” as Curiosity sliced through the Martian atmosphere at 21,000kph.
In a Hollywood-style finish, cables delicately lowered the rover to the ground at a snail-paced 3kph. A video camera was set to capture the most dramatic moments — which would give earthlings their first glimpse of a touchdown on another world.
Celebrations by the mission team were so joyous over the next hour that JPL director Charles Elachi had to plead for calm to hold a press conference. He compared the team to athletic teams that go to the Olympics.
“This team came back with the gold,” he said.
The extraterrestrial feat was a much-needed boost to NASA, which is debating whether it can afford another Mars landing this decade. At a budget-busting US$2.5 billion, Curiosity is the priciest gamble yet, which scientists hope will pay off with a bonanza of discoveries.
“We’re on Mars again,” NASA chief Charles Bolden said. “It’s just absolutely incredible. It doesn’t get any better than this.”
US President Barack Obama tweeted his appreciation: “I congratulate and thank all the men and women of NASA who made this remarkable accomplishment a reality.”
In a statement, Obama said the landing was “an unprecedented feat of technology that will stand as a point of national pride far into the future.”
Over the next two years, Curiosity will drive over to a mountain rising from the crater floor, poke into rocks and scoop up rust-tinted soil to see if the region ever had the right environment for microscopic organisms to thrive. It is the latest chapter in the long-running quest to find out whether primitive life arose early in the planet’s history.
The voyage to Mars took more than eight months and spanned 566 million kilometers. The trickiest part of the journey? The landing. Because Curiosity weighs nearly a tonne, engineers drummed up a new and more controlled way to set the rover down. The last Mars rovers, twins Spirit and Opportunity, were cocooned in air bags and bounced to a stop in 2004.
The plans for Curiosity called for a series of braking tricks, similar to those used by the space shuttle, and a supersonic parachute to slow it down. Next: Ditch the heat shield used for the fiery descent. And in a new twist, engineers came up with a way to lower the rover by cable from a hovering rocket-powered backpack. At touchdown, the cords cut and the rocket stage crashed a distance away.