Sunday night, at Mission Control in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, must have been spent with the proverbial butterflies in the stomach, as NASA’s Mars rover, Curiosity, prepared to touch down on the Red Planet after an 8-month and 570-million kilometer journey, for what would be a first-of-its-kind touchdown on the Martian surface.
Curiosity, the latest breed in rovers, comes equipped with nuclear power, rock-splitting lasers and a host of sophisticated technology to search for possible life or any existence of it. It weighs in at nearly a ton, making it the largest rover ever to be sent to Mars and owing to this fact, NASA engineers had to devise a new method of deployment that would involve a jet-powered platform or “sky crane” that would lower the rover to the Martian surface and while the method itself may have been ingenious in theory, it had of course been untested in the field and owing to the distance, there would be a 13-minute delay between transmission, preventing NASA mission control from affecting any real-time changes.
But as Curiosity successfully touched down in the Gale Crater at 05:32 GMT Monday morning, Mission Control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory erupted in a cheer as the NASA scientists greeted one another on the successful landing, with mission controllers saying, “Touchdown confirmed. We are wheels down on Mars. Oh, my God.”
The Mars Science Laboratory or MSL’s touchdown was announced by a signal transmitted via NASA’s Odyssey satellite, which presently is in orbit around the Red Planet, confirming the rover’s safe touchdown. A short while after, Curiosity sent its first low-resolution images, with colored high-resolution images to follow shortly.
A Twitter account set up for the Rover, also announced, "I'm safely on the surface of Mars. GALE CRATER I AM IN YOU!!!," with the latest update saying, “FYI, I aim to send bigger, color pictures from Mars later this week once I've got my head up & Mastcam active.”
Curiosity’s touchdown, which involved deployment at an entry speed of 20,000km/h, required the rover to slow down to a speed of 0.6 meters per second. This period was described by NASA scientists as "seven minutes of terror."
Commenting on the successful landing, NASA administrator Charles Bolden said, “Today, the wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze the trail for human footprints on Mars. We're on Mars again, and it's absolutely incredible. It doesn't get any better than this."
Curiosity’s mission is planned for two years, but analysts have said that it is very likely that it could continue for decades depending on the rover itself.