PASADENA, California: NASA Monday successfully landed its $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory and Curiosity rover on the surface of the Red Planet, breaking new ground in US-led exploration of an alien world.
The one-tonne rover is the largest ever sent to Mars, and its high-speed landing was the most daring to date, using a never before tested rocket-powered sky crane to lower the six-wheeled vehicle gently to the planet’s surface.
“Touchdown confirmed,” said a member of mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as the room erupted in cheers on Monday. “We are wheels down on Mars. Oh my God.”A dusty image of the rover’s wheel on the surface, taken from a rear camera on the vehicle, confirmed the arrival of the car-sized rover and its sophisticated toolkit designed to hunt for signs that life once existed there.
A second image arrived within seconds, showing the shadow of the rover on Mars. The official landing time was stated as 05:32am GMT Monday, according to a NASA statement.The nuclear-powered rover is now set for a two-year mission to explore the Red Planet, including a long climb up a mountain to analyse sediment layers that are up to a billion years old.
When the landing was announced after a tense, seven-minute process known as entry, descent and landing, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory filled with jubilation as the mission team cheered, exchanged hugs and chief scientists handed out Mars chocolate bars.
President Barack Obama described the feat as a singular source of American pride. “The successful landing of Curiosity — the most sophisticated roving laboratory ever to land on another planet — marks an unprecedented feat of technology that will stand as a point of national pride far into the future,” he said in a statement.
Science Adviser John Holdren described the landing as “an enormous step forward in planetary exploration. Nobody has ever done anything like this.” The project also aims to study the Martian environment to prepare for a possible human mission there in the coming years. President Obama has vowed to send humans there by 2030.
The spacecraft has already been collecting data on radiation during its eight and a half month journey following launch in November 2011 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Previous attempts by global space agencies since 1960 have resulted in a near 40 percent success rate in sending landers, orbiters or other spacecraft for flybys to Mars. NASA has the best record, with four prior mission successes to Mars: Viking 1 and 2 (1976), Pathfinder (1997), rovers Spirit and Opportunity (2004) and Phoenix (2008).