PASADENA, Calif. >> In a show of technological wizardry, the robotic explorer Curiosity blazed through the pink skies of Mars, steering itself to a gentle landing inside a giant crater for the most ambitious dig yet into the red planet’s past.
A chorus of cheers and applause echoed through the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Sunday night after the most high-tech interplanetary rover ever built sent a signal to Earth. It had survived a harrowing plunge through the thin Mars atmosphere.
“Touchdown confirmed,” said engineer Allen Chen. “We’re safe on Mars.”
Minutes later, Curiosity beamed back the first pictures from the surface showing its wheel and its shadow, cast by the afternoon sun — giving earthlings their first glimpse of a touchdown on another world.
It was NASA’s seventh landing on Earth’s neighbor; many other attempts by the U.S. and other countries to zip past, circle or set down on Mars have gone awry.
The arrival was an engineering tour de force, debuting never-before-tried acrobatics packed into “seven minutes of terror” as Curiosity sliced through the Martian atmosphere at 13,000 mph.
In a Hollywood-style finish, cables delicately lowered the rover to the ground at a snail-paced 2 mph.
The extraterrestrial feat injected a much-needed boost to NASA, which is debating whether it can afford another Mars landing this decade. At a budget-busting $2.5 billion, Curiosity is the priciest gamble yet, which scientists hope will pay off with a bonanza of discoveries.
Over the next two years, Curiosity will drive over to a mountain rising from the crater floor, poke into rocks and scoop up rust-tinted soil to see if the region ever had the right environment for microscopic organisms to thrive. It’s the latest chapter in the long-running quest to find out whether primitive life arose early in the planet’s history.