The target was Gale Crater (a mere 94 miles wide). Fourteen minutes after the 1-ton spacecraft Curiosity touched down on Mars’ surface, a radio telescope in Australia picked up the “text message” from the orbiting Mars Odyssey satellite and Australia sent it on to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory here in Pasadena. On receiving two thumbnail images from the Curiosity that showed the surface of Mars, the room of scientists and engineers erupted into cheers and many, many rounds of high-fives.
Director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA called Curiosity’s touchdown on the red planet “the Super Bowl of planetary exploration.”
Curiosity will be on an extended visit—one whole Martian year (that’s two years for us earthlings). Its mission is to reach Aeolis Mons or Mount Sharp which is inside the 3-mile-high crater. Scientists are hoping that the layers of rock will reveal its geological history, detailing the planet’s transition from warm and wet to cold and dry.
Adam Steltzner, the engineer in charge of creating Curiosity’s landing plan said that he and his team were “rationally confident” and “emotionally terrified.”
Well, tonight Steltzner and the rest of the men and women involved in this $2.5 billion spacecraft can kick back and celebrate: curiosity has landed on Mars. Congratulations.