WASHINGTON -- Elated scientists, cheered by the successful landing of the most sophisticated collection of scientific instruments ever landed on the surface of Mars, got to work Monday to ready the rover named Curiosity for what they hope will be years of discovery about the origins of the Red Planet.
After 36 weeks in space -- and a final "seven minutes of terror" -- Curiosity was gently lowered to the Martian surface by a "sky crane" operation never before attempted by NASA. An orbiting Mars satellite sent back a picture of the rover and its hovercraft dangling from a parachute.
Within minutes of its touchdown at 1:32 a.m. EDT, the 1-ton rover was transmitting black-and-white images of the Martian landscape beneath an afternoon sun, the first of what scientists predict will be enormous amounts of information, including a possible answer to whether Mars ever supported conditions for organic life.
Though the rover isn't built to find evidence of life itself -- alive or fossilized -- its raft of 10 scientific instruments will hunt for carbon-based compounds considered essential to microbial life.
"I can only imagine what incredible data and new understandings are going to be uncovered in the coming days, months and years because of this success," said John Holdren, top science adviser to the White House.
Mission-control center at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., erupted into cheers, and NASA workers hugged and high-fived one another as Curiosity confirmed its touchdown.
Then they got back to work testing the rover's systems, a process that could take several weeks before it is declared operational.
"It's absolutely incredible. It doesn't get any better than this," NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said. "It's a huge day for the nation."
President Barack Obama declared in a statement issued by the White House: "It proves that even the longest of odds are no match for our unique blend of ingenuity and determination."
It was the seventh time the United States has landed a craft on Mars, with Curiosity being the largest, most sophisticated. Many other attempts, including at least one by Russia, have failed.
The success of Monday's landing means the SUV-sized rover, which cost $2.5 billion to build and launch, soon can begin its exploration of the planet, using 10 science instruments as well as a robotic arm and even a laser to zap rocks and dirt to see what they are made of.
Although its mission life is two years, NASA officials said they hoped that they could extend that time frame to four or more years, not an impossible goal given the longevity of two smaller rovers NASA landed in 2004; one of them is still working.
Curiosity's hunting range will be a 96-mile crater near Mars' equator, one of the planet's lowest points. The basin, dubbed Gale Crater after an Australian astronomer, has been compared to the Grand Canyon -- both have their geological history neatly layered in the rock. It also sports a 3-mile-high mountain called Mount Sharp. Scientists think the basin may even have held water once.
In coming weeks, the rover -- powered by a plutonium battery -- will grind its way around the crater at a top speed of about one-tenth of a mile an hour. A 7-foot arm will grab rocks to be heated and chemically analyzed by an onboard laboratory. Other instruments will measure radiation and weather.
The rover also is equipped with a laser to zap nearby rocks so the rover can analyze the chemical makeup of the resulting gas cloud. The hope is that Curiosity can find some evidence of carbon-based compounds, such as methane, which are critical to life.
To land the rover successfully, NASA had to put it through a complicated landing sequence dubbed "seven minutes of terror."
Adding to the tension was that fewer than half of all Mars missions have succeeded.
The descent involved slowing the craft by using the Martian atmosphere as a brake. The temperature of its heat shield got as high as 3,800 degrees Fahrenheit, a supersonic parachute was used and the capsule had to be transformed into a hovercraft before landing.