Precisely on time and target, NASA’s Curiosity rover touched down safely on Mars Monday to begin an ambitious two-year trek through a mountainous crater that promises to reveal whether the red planet was ever hospitable to life.
The one ton, $2.5 billion Curiosity is the most scientifically equipped probe ever sent to another planet. And when the robot rover touches down on Sunday, it will begin an intensive search for signs that Mars may have once hosted life. .
Almost immediately upon landing early Monday, the Curiosity craft transmitted to Earth a series of photographs showing its own wheels safely on the surface of Gale Crater near the equator of Mars.
“There is the wheel of the rover safely on the surface of Mars,” said one exuberant flight engineer from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., which is managing the $2.5 billion mission. “This is amazing.”
For the first time, scientists expect to probe below the surface of Mars for evidence of chemistry favorable to life using the robot rover’s high-speed drill. In all, the plutonium-powered, six-wheeled Curiosity vehicle carries 10 scientific instruments, including an onboard analytical laboratory, to process mineral and sediment samples.
It was a high-profile success for a beleaguered space agency that had gambled on an untried landing procedure.
“We are on Mars again,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “It’s a great day.”
Too big to rely on airbags to cushion its fall as with previous Mars landers the one-ton Curiosity robot rover had to land 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.
Indeed, the Mars landing early Monday was its first full field trial.
At almost exactly 1:31 am ET on Monday—the critical moment of the craft’s scheduled landing on Mars—a wave of cheers, war-whoops and applause swept through the control rooms at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The electronic “heart-beat” tones relayed from the Curiosity across space to Earth indicated a successful landing.