(Sen) - NASA's Curiosity rover, the largest and most advanced ever built, landed successfully on the Red Planet this morning at 5.32 UTC. The robot touched down in Gale Crater where it will begin a two year mission to see if Mars had conditions favourable for microbial life.
Landing the rover involved lowering it from a sky crane - an ambitious technology and one never tried before. News of the landing - which took almost 15 minutes to be relayed to listening stations back on Earth - was met with huge relief and joy at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory mission control.
During its descent to the surface, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) captured this incredible image (credit NASA):
The landing process was pre-programmed and all NASA could do was sit and wait for the news, just like millions of space enthusiasts around the world. There were no second chances with the entry, descent and landing procedure and, due to the communications lag between the two planets, no chance to make any alteration once entry had started. The final leg of the journey, from the atmosphere to the surface, had been dubbed "seven minutes of terror" by NASA but these had been turned into "Seven Minutes of Triumph" said NASA Associate Administrator for Science John Grunsfeld.
MSL Project Manager Peter Theisinger commented "The landing takes us past the most hazardous moments for this project, and begins a new and exciting mission to pursue its scientific objectives."
NASA, which has had budget cuts to planetary science, will be hugely relieved that everything went according to plan and that the wheels of the $2.5 billion mission are ready for motion.
Gale Crater landing site taken by Curiosity's rear-left Hazcam. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The first low resolution grey scale images were sent within a few minutes of touchdown. The above picture was taken through a fisheye wide-angle lens on the left "eye" of a stereo pair of Hazard-Avoidance cameras on the left-rear side of the rover. The image is half of full resolution. The clear dust cover that protected the camera during landing had sprung open by the time this image was captured.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said: "Today, the wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze the trail for human footprints on Mars. Curiosity, the most sophisticated rover ever built, is now on the surface of the Red Planet, where it will seek to answer age-old questions about whether life ever existed on Mars - or if the planet can sustain life in the future. This is an amazing achievement, made possible by a team of scientists and engineers from around the world and led by the extraordinary men and women of NASA and our Jet Propulsion Laboratory. President Obama has laid out a bold vision for sending humans to Mars in the mid-2030's, and today's landing marks a significant step toward achieving this goal."
President Obama released a message after the landing, stating "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."
Once engineers have determined that it is safe to deploy the rover's Remote Sensing Mast and its high-tech cameras, a process that may take several days, Curiosity will begin to survey its exotic surroundings.
Justin Maki of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said "Once all of the critical systems have been checked out by the engineering team and the mast is deployed, the rover will image the landing site with higher-resolution cameras."
Curiosity, a car sized robot weighing nearly one tonne, carries 10 scientific instruments including a laser firing instrument to ascertain the composition of rocks. The rover will use a drill and scoop at the end of its robotic arm to gather samples of rock interiors and analyse them in its own on-board laboratory.
NASA/JPL ground controllers celebrate the news that Curiosity had landed safely on Mars and begun to send back images to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
The rover has been designed to operate for a full Martian year (687 Earth days), though it could last longer. The Mars Exploration Rovers were designed to operate for just 90 days, yet Spirit kept going for over 6 years and Opportunity is still active.
MSL launched from Space Launch Complex 41, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, on 26 November 2011 atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory mission for NASA.
The mission is costing US $2.5 billion.