KPCC reporters had been talking to Southland scientists and engineers and counting down the days until NASA's most ambitious rover yet — Curiosity — prepares to land on the Martian surface. Follow the series online.
It would have been a sight to see: a car-sized rover using heat shields, a supersonic parachute and a jet powered hovercraft to safely land on the red dirt of Mars. A landing worthy of a medal, though no one was around to see it.
But at 10:32 "Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineers in Pasadena erupted in cheers and hugs when they received a signal confirming the landing of Curiosity was a success.
Not only did the rover land, but JPL was able to upload pictures from Mars showing the vehicle's surroundings. One picture shows a wheel from the rover, and another shows Curiosity's shadow on the Martian surface.
"If anybody has been harboring doubts about the status of US leadership in space," remarked White House science adviser John Holdren, "there is a one ton automobile-sized piece of American ingenuity and it is sitting on the surface of Mars right now and it should certainly put any such doubts to rest."
This marks the end of an eight-month, 350-million-mile journey through space for Curiosity. Over the next few days the six-wheeled rover will update its software and get ready for its primary mission: to search the dirt and rocks of Mars for organic compounds -- the building blocks of life.
Curiosity is equipped with a drill and a sophisticated lab that can analyze Martian dirt samples. It also has a laser that can zap a rock from a distance and scan the resulting plasma to see what the rock is made of.
The rover is expected to operate for two years, but it could last for much longer. It’s nuclear powered, so unlike the solar-powered Spirit and Opportunity rovers, it will not lose energy during dark periods.
"President Obama laid out a bold vision for sending humans to Mars, and today's landing marks a significant step toward achiving this goal," NASA administrator Charles Bolden said.