The "seven minutes of terror" are over, and members of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) team have finally let out a collective sigh of relief.
The newest Mars rover, Curiosity, touched down successfully on the red planet on Sunday night and is now parked, as planned, near the base of a scientifically tantalizing layered mountain within Gale Crater, just south of the Martian equator.
"Touchdown confirmed," said Allen Chen, MSL's operations lead for entry, descent, and landing, at 10:32 p.m. PDT from mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Then the engineers and scientists in the room—who had been intently focused on their computer screens just moments before—started clapping and high-fiving each other, some even crying tears of joy. The celebrations continued as each of three low-resolution images taken by the rover's hazard-avoidance cameras appeared on screen, showing one of Curiosity's wheels and the vehicle's shadow on Mars.
Caltech president Jean-Lou Chameau joined in the festivities. "This is a win for humankind—Curiosity belongs to everyone," said Chameau. "Exploring Mars will help us develop a greater understanding of the universe and our place in it. This extraordinary accomplishment is testament to the talent and hard work of the many dedicated scientists and engineers at JPL and Caltech."
In the days ahead, Curiosity will begin an analysis of its instruments and subsystems, take photographs of its surroundings, and begin using some of its 10 scientific instruments. The team expects that it will be at least a week before the rover goes for its first spin on Mars.
Having traveled about 354 million miles, MSL has cleared some major hurdles, but the scientific journey is just beginning.