NASA confirmed early Monday morning that its $2.5 billion, 1,000 pound Curiosity rover safely landed on Mars, becoming the most sophisticated and heaviest piece of machinery ever to land on the red planet.
Just hours later, the rover beamed back its first photo of the 96-mile wide Gale Crater, which the rover will explore over the next two years to determine if Mars does or could have ever supported microbial life.
Leaders in Washington lauded the complex landing, which used a "sky crane" to lower the rover, which is about the size of a Mini Cooper, safely onto Mars' surface. NASA announced the landing at 1:32 a.m. EDT, more than eight months after its November 26 launch. Experts have called the mission a "make or break" one for NASA because of the inherent risk associated with landing a rover on Mars and the considerable cost of the mission. The rover has been in development since late 2004.
"Today, the wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze the trail for human footprints on Mars," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement. "President Obama has laid out a bold vision for sending humans to Mars in the mid-2030's, and today's landing marks a significant step toward achieving this goal."
Many people across the country stayed up well into the night to watch the landing--it was streamed in Times Square, the Pasadena, Calif., Convention Center, and in other public areas.
"There's a one-ton piece of American ingenuity and it's sitting on the surface of Mars right now," said John Holdren, a senior adviser to President Obama.
Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org