“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.
After a 345-million-mile voyage from earth, the Curiosity craft touched down in Gale Crater—its intended target—late in the afternoon by Martian time, plunging through clear, cool skies sprinkled with high altitude ice clouds. A dust storm had earlier threatened to buffet the craft off-course during its descent but by landing time it had dissipated.
“Tonight, on the planet Mars, the United States of America made history,” tweeted President Barack Obama. “I congratulate and thank all the men and women of NASA who made this remarkable accomplishment a reality.”
It will be weeks before mission operations engineers have tested all the rover’s electronics and mechanical systems for any damage during the descent and are ready to begin steering the Curiosity rover around the crater and a nearby mountain, known as Mount Sharp.
“We are going to spend the entire month of August checking out the vehicle, “said deputy project manager Richard Cook. “There is a lot of uncertainty about how quickly we will be able to do things.”