NASA's Mars Science Lab soared through clear, pink Martian skies early Monday, settling down beside a giant mound of layered rock inside an ancient crater at 1:32 a.m. EDT.
The harrowing, seven-minute ride through the atmosphere, billed as "seven-minutes of terror," turned out to be short-lived cliffhanger, much to NASA's relief.
"It's an enormous step forward in planetary exploration," John Holdren, President Obama's science advisor, said shortly after touchdown. "Nobody has ever done anything like this."
Mars Science Lab, also known as Curiosity, sailed through space for more than eight months, covering 352 million miles, before barreling into the Martian atmosphere at 13,000 mph at around 1:24 a.m. EDT on Monday.
Curiosity steered itself through the atmosphere — the first spacecraft to make a guided entry on another planet — to burn off speed, then rode a 51-foot diameter parachute, a jet-powered backpack and a never-before-used “sky crane” to reach Gale Crater, located near the planet’s equator, at 1:32 a.m. EDT.
Flight controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., hooted with joy as radio transmissions from Curiosity, relayed by the orbiting Mars Odyssey spacecraft, confirmed the risky landing was successful. The icing on the cake came a few minutes later when the rover, sitting on six wheels on the planet's surface, relayed its first three pictures on the rocky terrain.
"I can't believe this, this is unbelievable," said Allen Chen, deputy chief of the rover's descent and landing team.
Curiosity is to spend two years exploring the basin and an unusual three-mile-high mound of what appears to be sediments rising from the crater’s floor. The purpose of the $2.5 billion, two-year mission is to look for habitats where life could have taken root.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech