NASA scientists hailed the Mars rover Curiosity's flawless descent and landing as a “miracle of engineering” on Monday as they scanned early images of an ancient crater that may hold clues about whether life took hold on Earth's planetary cousin.
The one-ton, six-wheeled laboratory nailed an intricate and risky touchdown late on Sunday, much to the relief and joy of scientists and engineers eager to conduct NASA's first astrobiology mission since the 1970s Viking probes.
Encased in a capsule-like protective shell, the nuclear-powered rover capped an eight-month voyage as it streaked into the thin Martian atmosphere at 13,200 miles per hour (21,243 kilometers per hour), 17 times the speed of sound.
Plunging through the top of the atmosphere at an angle producing aerodynamic lift, the capsule's “guided entry” system used jet thrusters to steer the craft as it fell, making small course corrections and burning off most of its downward speed.
Closer to the ground, the vessel was slowed further by a giant, supersonic parachute before a jet backpack and flying “sky crane” took over to deliver Curiosity the last mile to the surface.
The rover, about the size of a small sports car, came to rest as planned at the bottom of a vast impact bowl called Gale Crater, and near a towering mound of layered rock called Mount Sharp, which rises from the floor of the basin.
A trio of orbiting satellites monitored what NASA had billed as the “seven minutes of terror,” but the anxiety proved to be unfounded.
After its first day on Mars, NASA's rover Monday sent back to Earth stunning images of its crater landing site and the mountain it aims to climb in the hunt for signs of life.
Jennifer Trosper, Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission manager, points out the communications antenna on a model of NASA's Mars science rover Curiosity as she speaks during a news conference at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California August 6. - Photo by Reuters
This photo provided by NASA shows a full-resolution version of one of the first images taken by a rear Hazard-Avoidance camera on NASA's Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars the Sunday evening, Aug. 5, 2012. The image was originally taken through a "fisheye" wide-angle lens, but has been "linearized" so that the horizon looks flat rather than curved. A Hazard-avoidance camera on the rear-left side of Curiosity obtained this image. Part of the rim of Gale Crater, which is a feature the size of Connecticut and Rhode
This artist's rendering released by NASA/JPL-Caltech on Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012, shows how NASA's Curiosity rover will communicate with Earth during landing. As the rover descends to the surface of Mars, it will send out two different types of data: basic radio-frequency tones that go directly to Earth (pink dots) and more complex UHF radio data (blue circles) that require relaying by orbiters. NASA's Odyssey orbiter will pick up the UHF signal and relay it immediately back to Earth, while NASA's Mars Reconnaissance O
This image taken by NASA's Curiosity shows what lies ahead for the rover -- its main science target, informally called Mount Sharp Monday, Aug. 6, 2012. The rover's shadow can be seen in the foreground, and the dark bands beyond are dunes. Rising up in the distance is the highest peak of Mount Sharp at a height of about 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers), taller than Mt. Whitney in California. The Curiosity team hopes to drive the rover to the mountain to investigate its lower layers, which scientists think hold clues to p
The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance orbiter, captures the Curiosity rover still connected to its 51-foot-wide (almost 16 meter) parachute as it descends towards its landing site at Gale Crater on August 5, 2012, in this handout image courtesy of NASA. - Photo by Reuters
Jennifer Trosper, Mars Science Laboratory, MSL mission manager, JPL, left, Michael Malin, principal investigator, Mars Descent Imager, center, and Joy Crisp, MSL deputy project scientist, JPL take questions during a news briefing on the last data and imagery from Sol 1 at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., Monday, Aug. 6, 2012. NASA has released a low-resolution video of the Curiosity rover during the final few minutes of its descent to the Martian surface. An image shows the protective heat shie