There was applause, tears of joy and cheers of relief at mission control as NASA’s latest Mars rover, Curiosity, successfully landed on the Red Planet.
After more than a decade of preparation, a near nine month journey across space and a descent through the Martian atmosphere, the sophisticated mobile science lab is ready to get to work.
A delighted NASA administrator Charles Bolden said: “Today, right now, 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 there on Mars.”
Confirmation that the risky landing had worked came in low resolution images of the rover’s wheel. The first colour pictures are expected later in the week.
Curiosity entered the Martian atmosphere at nearly 21,000 km an hour, 17-times the speed of sound on Earth.
Touchdown was the stuff of Hollywood; a giant parachute, a jet-powered backpack and finally a so-called sky crane, which lowered the rover gently onto the planet surface.
Curiosity will study the landing site – the Gale Crater – and its huge central mound.
Described as a “geological sweet shop”, it is composed of layers of sediment stretching back in time, allowing Curiosity to look for evidence that the planet might have harboured the basic building blocks of microbial life.
Curiosity is the fourth rover NASA has put on Mars. The first, Pathfinder, landed in 1997, some 20 years after the Viking space probes reached the planet.
Spirit and Opportunity were sent to opposite sides of Mars and landed in 2004.
Out of 40 Mars probes, 26 have failed or fallen short, among them the 1999 Climate Orbiter, which disappeared from view as it neared its goal.
Curiosity’s landing is a milestone for NASA, beset by budget cuts and the loss of its space shuttle programme.
White House Science Adviser John Holdren said: “If anybody has been harbouring any doubts about the status of US leadership in space, there is a one-tonne automobile sized piece of American ingenuity, and it is sitting on the surface of Mars right now.”
The world has been captivated by the enduring mystery of the Red Planet.
The US is now another step nearer to President Barack Obama’s goal of putting astronauts on Mars by the 2030s.