NASA’s Mars science rover Curiosity landed safely early Monday morning after hurtling through the pink Martian skies at the start of a two-year quest for signs the Red Planet once hosted key ingredients for life.
Curiosity, the first full-fledged mobile science laboratory sent to a distant world, was scheduled to touch down inside a vast, ancient impact crater on Sunday at 10:31 p.m. Pacific time (1:31 a.m. EDT on Monday), reports Reuters.
Mission controllers burst into applause and cheered in relief as they received signals confirming that the rover had survived its perilous descent and arrived within its target zone at the bottom of a vast, ancient crater.
Curiosity, which weighs a ton and is about the size of a small sports car, approached Mars at about 13,000 miles per hour. When the Martian atmosphere slowed the craft to about 900 miles per hour, a supersonic parachute deployed, slowing the craft even further. But the rover was still descending too quickly to land in one piece, according to The Huff Post.
After the rover separated from the parachute, rocket motors fired, continuing to slow the descent. Then, at about 60 feet above the surface, a “sky-crane” lowered the rover to its new home on the Red Planet.
“I can’t believe this. This is unbelievable,” enthused Allen Chen, the deputy lead of the rover’s entry, descent and landing team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles.
President Obama released a statement immediately after the landing: “Tonight, on the planet Mars, the United States of America made history. 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. It proves that even the longest of odds are no match for our unique blend of ingenuity and determination.”
“I congratulate and thank all the men and women of NASA who made this remarkable accomplishment a reality – and I eagerly await what Curiosity has yet to discover,” the president said.
Yahoo writes that the purpose of the $2.5 billion mission is to look for evidence that Mars – the planet most similar to Earth – may have once harbored the basic building blocks necessary for microbial life to evolve. It represents NASA’s first astrobiology mission since the 1970s-era Viking probes.
The rover, formally called the Mars Science Lab, is equipped with an array of sophisticated chemistry and geology instruments capable of analyzing samples of soil, rocks and atmosphere on the spot and beaming results back to scientists on Earth.
“It’s an enormous step forward in planetary exploration. Nobody has ever done anything like this,” said John Holdren, the top science advisor to President Barack Obama, who was visiting JPL for the event. “It was an incredible performance.”
The rover was launched on November 26 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It is equipped with a laser gun that can zap a rock from 23 feet away to create a spark whose spectral image is analyzed by a special telescope to discern the mineral’s chemical composition.