After a 36-week, 154-million-mile journey capped by a highly complex but flawlessly executed landing sequence, the rover Curiosity spent its first full day on Mars today at the dawn of a two-year $2.5 billion mission designed to determine if the Red Planet ever supported life and if it can do so in the future.
Scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge, from where the mission is being run for NASA, cheered and hugged each other when it was announced that Curiosity landed at 10:32 p.m. Pacific time Sunday near the foot of a mountain three miles tall and 96 miles in diameter inside Mars' Gale Crater.
"Today, the wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze the trail for human footprints on Mars,'' said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "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."
Curiosity soon sent back its first picture, a wide-angle scene of rocky ground, then a clearer version of the same, followed by an image from the other side of the rover -- a plutonium-powered laboratory on six wheels that weighs a ton and is the size of a small car.
More images are expected in the coming days. In the meantime, as scientists assess the status of its instruments, Curiosity is scheduled this week to deploy its main antenna, raise a mast fitted with cameras and other instruments, and take its first panoramic shot.
But the Rover's first foray from its landing site will not take place until next month; no soil examination is to take place until the middle of September at the earliest, and no rock drilling will occur before October.