The Curiosity rover survived a perilous landing on Mars early Monday in a never-before-tried technique that saw it lowered to the surface of the Red Planet like a spider on a string, the NASA space agency said.
Cheers broke out in NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California as the rover touched down after what had been dubbed "seven minutes of terror," when the craft entered the planet's atmosphere and undertook the most complicated landing yet for an unmanned craft.
Within minutes of its 0532 GMT landing, Curiosity sent its first grainy images, showing its wheels safely on the surface. Shouts of "It's the wheel, it's the wheel!" erupted in the control room.
Zooming toward the surface at more than 20,000 kilometres per hour, the craft carrying the rover had decelerated using thrusters and a parachute.
It jettisoned its cruising rockets, heat shield and outer shell - going through six different vehicle configurations - before a jet-pack like device known as a "sky crane" gently lowered the 900-kilogramme rover to the Martian surface like a spider on a thread.
NASA's Odyssey orbiter circling the planet sent the first confirmation of the landing via an antenna in Australia.
Launched in November, the 2.5 billion dollar rover programme is part of a mission designed to determine whether conditions on Mars were ever right for life. Its mission is also part of broader plans to eventually send astronauts to Mars.
"Today the wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze the path for human footprints on Mars," NASA chief Charlie Bolden told reporters and a room full of thrilled engineers and scientists. "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 on Mars - or if the planet can sustain life in the future."
He called the landing an "amazing" feat and noted that only 40 per cent of craft ever sent to Mars have successfully arrived. The complicated landing manoeuvre was being employed with a rover for the first time, and earlier efforts with much smaller rovers always involved an airbag-like structure.
Fans gathered around the United States, including in New York's Times Square, to watch a live broadcast from mission control.
US President Barack Obama called the landing a historic moment that marked a major advance in space exploration.
"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," Obama said. "It proves that even the longest of odds are no match for our unique blend of ingenuity and determination."
The mission is to spend at least one Martian year - nearly two Earth years - studying the Gale crater to transition from the search for water to the search for life by looking for other ingredients necessary for life, such as carbon. It will study minerals on the surface to get an idea about what conditions were like on the planet millions of years ago.
The Gale crater, where Curiosity will focus its efforts, is nearly 154 kilometres in diameter and features a mountain that rises some 5 kilometres above the surface. The massive feature includes layers of rock strata that will provide a virtual history of Mars' geological past.
The rover landed in a low-lying area where water appears to have once flowed, allowing it to get to work right away before heading toward the mountain.
Curiosity will make use of a range of new instruments. Armed with two cameras atop a mast, Curiosity can take 3-D and panoramic images, and a laser can be shot into rocks to determine their chemical elements.
A two-metre long robotic arm can be extended out from the rover to examine its surroundings more closely, and a drill will allow it to take samples from inside rocks.
The area has already been studied extensively from orbiting spacecraft, and scientists hope that Curiosity will provide clues to a probable wet Martian past. The area contains clay and sulfate-rich areas, where organic compounds necessary to life could be found.
Curiosity builds on the work of past rovers, including Opportunity, one of a pair of water-hunting twin rovers that continued functioning years beyond their orginal missions.
NASA eventually hopes to send a manned mission to Mars, and robotic missions to Earth's nearest planetary neighbour have continued. On Thursday, India said it hopes to send an orbiter to the planet as soon as 2013.
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