The Mars Rover Curiosity landed safely on Mars on Sunday, completing a complex journey to the red planet. Now, its mission can begin.
Curiosity‘s landing was confirmed at 10:32 PDT (05:32 UTC), when its signals from Mars reached the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.
The landing included a complex series of maneuvers, including a “sky crane,” which lowered the rover while using rocket power to stay aloft. But Curiosity survived the “seven minutes of terror,” and made a flawless landing at Gale Crater.
“I can’t believe this. This is unbelievable,” said Allen Chen, deputy head of the descent and landing team, according to Reuters.
Within moments of landing, Curiosity beamed back images from its landing site, including a shot of one of its wheels, and another of the rover’s shadow.
The first images were black-and-white, but Curiosity is equipped with high-definition color cameras, as well as an array of scientific instrmentation.
President Barack Obama hailed the achievement.
“Tonight, on the planet Mars, the United States of America made history,” Obama said in a statement. “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.”
The rover is the most complex exploration vehicle ever to land on Mars. The craft is twice as long and five times as heavy as the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, which landed in 2004. The rover is 9.8 feet (3m) long, and weighs a full ton. Curiosity is also powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, as opposed to earlier solar-powered rovers.
After a few weeks of engineering tests designed to ensure Curiosity landed in good shape, the rover will begin exploring Gale Crater, which is believed to have once been the site of a Martian lake. Aeolis Mons, a mountain in the center of the crater, is believed to be composed of sediment laid down in the ancient lake. Curiosity will look for signs of past water, as well as for organic chemicals that could have been created by ancient Martian life.
Curiosity‘s mission is slated to last two years, but it could last much longer. Spirit and Opportunity were both expected to operate for 90 days, but Spirit was able to explore until 2009, and Opportunity is still operational.