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.