In a show of technological wizardry, robotic explorer Curiosity blazed through the pink skies of Mars, steering itself to a gentle landing inside a giant crater for the most ambitious dig yet into the red planet’s past.
Cheers and applause echoed through the Nasa Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) after the most high-tech interplanetary rover ever built signalled it had survived a harrowing plunge through the thin Mars atmosphere.
“Touchdown confirmed,” said engineer Allen Chen. “We’re safe on Mars.”
Minutes after the landing signal reached Earth, Curiosity beamed back the first black-and-white images from inside the crater showing its wheel and its shadow, cast by the afternoon sun.
“We landed in a nice flat spot. Beautiful, really beautiful,” said engineer Adam Steltzner, who led the team that devised the tricky landing routine.
It was Nasa’s seventh landing on Earth’s neighbour; many other attempts by the US and other countries to zip past, circle or set down on Mars have gone awry.
The arrival was an engineering tour de force, debuting never-before-tried acrobatics packed into “seven minutes of terror” as Curiosity sliced through the Martian atmosphere at 13,000m/ph.
In a Hollywood-style finish, cables delicately lowered the rover to the ground at a snail-paced 2m/ph.
A video camera was set to capture the most dramatic moments — which would give Earthlings their first glimpse of a touchdown on another world.
Celebrations by the mission team were so joyous over the next hour that JPL director Charles Elachi had to plead for calm in order to hold a post-landing press conference. He compared the team to athletic teams that participate in the Olympics.
“This team came back with the gold,” he said.
Gilles Leclerc, director- general of space exploration at the Canadian Space Agency, said workers there were celebrating too, having spent years working on a device aboard Curiosity that will help look for signs of life. “Well, we’re Canadians, eh? So it was less enthusiastic but I would say it was as emotional as it was in the US. But there were cheers indeed and it was again a great moment.”
Still, he said there were some tense moments. “The seven minutes of terror that we had been told to expect turned into a triumph in the end because it was a very daring landing technique and it was successful ... so we were all very ecstatic.”
The extraterrestrial feat injected a much-needed boost to Nasa, which is debating whether it can afford another robotic Mars landing this decade. At a budget-busting $2.5bn (€2.01bn), Curiosity is the priciest gamble yet, which scientists hope will pay off with a trove of discoveries and pave the way for astronaut landings.
President Barack Obama lauded the landing in a statement, calling it “an unprecedented feat of technology that will stand as a point of national pride far into the future”.
Over the next two years, Curiosity will drive over to a mountain rising from the crater floor, poke into rocks and scoop up rust-tinted soil to see if the region ever had the right environment for microscopic organisms to thrive. It is the latest chapter in the long-running quest to find out whether primitive life arose early in the planet’s history.
The voyage to Mars took more than eight months and spanned 352m miles. The trickiest part of the journey? The landing. Because Curiosity weighs nearly a tonne, engineers drummed up a new way to set the rover down. The last Mars rovers, twins Spirit and Opportunity, were cocooned in air bags and bounced to a stop in 2004.
Curiosity relied on braking tricks, a heat shield and a supersonic parachute to slow down as it punched through the atmosphere.
And in a new twist, engineers came up with a way to lower the rover by cable from a hovering rocket- powered backpack. At touchdown, the cords cut and the rocket stage crashed a distance away.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved