PASADENA, California, Aug 6 – NASA has 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-ton 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 surface of Mars.
“Touchdown confirmed,” said a member of mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as the room erupted in cheers late Sunday. “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 10:32 pm on the US West Coast (0532 GMT), 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 analyze 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.
“It proves that even the longest of odds are no match for our unique blend of ingenuity and determination.”
Charles Bolden, the NASA administrator, echoed that sentiment and applauded all the nations who contributed to science experiments on board the rover.
“It is a huge day for the nation, it is a huge day for all of our partners who have something on Curiosity and it is a huge day for the American people,” Bolden said.
Obama’s science advisor John Holdren described the landing as “just the latest example of a long standing truth about the United States – that even the longest of odds are no match for American’s unique blend of technical acumen and gutsy determination.
“And if anybody has been harbouring doubts about the status of US leadership in space, well there is a one-ton automobile sized piece of American ingenuity that is sitting on the surface of Mars right now.”
However, success was anything but certain. NASA’s more recent rover dropoffs involved smaller craft that were cushioned with the help of airbags.
In the final moments, the MSL spacecraft accelerated with the pull of gravity as it neared Mars’ atmosphere, making a fiery entry at a speed of 13,200 miles (21,240 kilometres) per hour and then slowing down with the help of a supersonic parachute.
After that, an elaborate sky crane powered by rocket blasters kicked in, and the rover was lowered down by nylon tethers, apparently landing upright on all six wheels.
Adam Steltzner, engineer and leader of the entry, descent and landing (EDL) team, who has previously admitted the landing bid appeared “crazy,” said that in the end, it “looked extremely clean.”
“In my life, I am and will be forever satisfied if this is the greatest thing that I have ever given,” he told reporters.
“There is a new picture of a new place on Mars, and for me at least, that is the big payoff.”
Scientists do not expect Curiosity to find aliens or living creatures. Rather they hope to use it to analyze soil and rocks for signs that the building blocks of life are present and may have supported life in the past.
The project also aims to study the Martian environment to prepare for a possible human mission there in the coming years.
It has already been collecting data on radiation during its eight and a half month journey following launch in November 2011 from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
“The two questions that humans have always asked about ourselves is, ‘Where do we come from?’ and ‘Are we alone?’” Randii Wessen, mission system engineer, told AFP.
“Was Mars ever habitable? Were the conditions ever agreeable with life as we know it?” Wessen added, describing the rover’s capacity as a “quantum leap over the kind of capability we’ve ever had on the surface of Mars.”
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).
More than 1,000 spectators applauded at France’s Toulouse Space Center as the Mars Science Laboratory and Curiosity rover landed on the Red Planet carrying two French-run components.
“It’s a huge thrill after so much suspense,” said Marc Pircher of France’s CNES space research centre. “Now the scientific adventure will begin.”
The Toulouse Space Centre will host the French Instrument Mars Operation Centre (FIMOC), which will manage two French instruments on Curiosity – the ChemCam and the SAM-GC chromatograph.
The ChemCam (Chemical Camera) will analyze rocks and soil to identify samples that would be of greatest interest to scientists for analysis by other instruments onboard, while the SAM-GC will sort, measure and identify gases for analysis.