Curiosity, NASA's most ambitious rover yet, made it to Mars safely Sunday night and is ready to begin a two-year exploration that scientists hope will tell the story of how the planet began.
At 10:32 p.m., only one minute after the space agency predicted to know the fate of the landing, cheers errupted from Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Mission Control center. Engineers, donned in light blue polo shirts, hugged and gave each other high fives. The Mars Odyssey Orbiter came through, sending the signal that Curiosity had touched down on Mars.
Minutes later, thumbnail-size photos arrived, showing the one-ton rover's shadow and a wheel firmly planted on Martian soil.
"That picture says it all for me," said Adam Steltzner, one of the mission's leading engineers. "It's really beautiful."
The landing "looks extremely clean," he added.
Steltzner joined the top JPL engineers and scientists who made the $2.5-billion mission a reality at a press conference on the center's La Cañada Flintridge campus shortly after the landing.
By Monday, they should have a better idea of where Curiosity landed. Right now, they're just reeling in the moment.
"That rocked," said Deputy Project Manager Richard Cook. "Seriously. Was that not cool?"
The spacecraft carrying Curiosity launched Nov. 26, 2011 and landed Sunday 154 million miles away from Earth. The complex landing sequence, nicknamed "the seven minutes of terror," involved slowing down the spacecraft from 13,000 mph to zero using a 100-pound supersonic parachute and rocket-powered "sky crane" that gently lowered the vehicle to the ground.
Engineers showed confidence in the mission all weekend, forgoing several opportunities to adjust the spacecraft's path before landing.
When the entry, descent and landing team confirms that the rover landed safely, the surface team will take over, mapping out Curiosity's first few weeks on Mars.
It'll be a slow process until the rover takes its first tour of the land, said John Grotzinger, the mission's project scientist. "The mission is about patience."
"We've hardly scratched the surface," he said.
-- Tiffany Kelly at Jet Propulsion Laboratory