PASADENA, Calif.--In an unparalleled technological triumph, a one-ton, nuclear-powered rover the size of a small car was lowered to the surface of Mars on the end of a 25-foot-long bridle suspended from the belly of a rocket-powered flying crane late Sunday to kick off an ambitious $2.5 billion mission.
With flight controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory anxiously watching telemetry flowing in from Mars, 154 million miles away and 13.8 minutes after the fact, the Mars Science Laboratory rover -- Curiosity -- radioed confirmation of touchdown at 10:32 p.m. PDT (GMT-7).
"Touchdown confirmed. We're safe on Mars!" said mission control commentator Allen Chen as the flight control team erupted in cheers and applause.
"It's just absolutely incredible, it doesn't get any better than this," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "I was a basket case in there, I was really on pins and needles.
"It's a huge day for the nation, it's a huge day for all of our partners and it's a huge day for the American people," he said. "Everybody in the morning should be sticking their chests out, saying 'that's my rover on Mars.' Because it belongs to all of us."
While the rover's exact position was not immediately known, there were no obvious problems during the dramatic entry, descent, and landing, and Curiosity presumably made it down inside a predicted footprint measuring four miles wide and 12 miles long -- a pinpoint landing compared with previous missions.
The seven-minute descent to the surface provided high drama as flight controllers monitored telemetry from the spacecrat, relayed through NASA's aging Mars Odyssey spacecraft. As each major milestone ticked off, engineers clapped and cheered.
"We have acquired the ground with the radar," Chen reported. "Heat shield has separated, we have found the ground. We're standing by to prime the engines in preparation for powered flight. Six-point-nine kilometers and descending..."
A few minutes later, the rover and its descent stage fell away from the vehicle's braking parachute and eight rocket engines ignited to stabilize the craft and slow the fall to touchdown velocity.
"We are in powered flight," Chen reported. "We're at an altitude of one kilometer and descending about 70 meters per second... 500 meters in altitude... standing by for sky crane. We found a nice flat place, we're coming in ready for sky crane. Down to 10 meters per second, 40 meters altitude."
A few moments later, just above the surface, the rocket-powered sky crane lowered Curiosity to the surface on the end of a 25-foot-long bridle, a landing technique never before attempted.
While engineers did not expect pictures right away, blurry low-resolution thumbnails from the rover's rear hazard avoidance cameras were transmitted within minutes of touchdown showing a wheel on the surface of Mars.
"Odyssey data is still strong," Chen reported. "Odyssey is nice and high in the sky. At this time we're standing by for images..."
"We've got thumbnails," someone said.
"We are wheels down on Mars!" Chen reported.
"Oh my God," someone said in the background.
Exploring the crater floor and climbing Mount Sharp over the next two years, Curiosity will look for signs of past or present habitability and search for carbon compounds, the building blocks of life as it is known on Earth.