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NASA Mars rover Curiosity's landing "rocked... Was that not cool?"

August 6, 2012 |  4:17 am

The first image from the rover Curiosity on the Mars surface hammered home to some scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory Sunday night that mission had been a success.

"That picture says it all for me," said Adam Steltzner, one of the mission's leading engineers. "It's really beautiful."

"That rocked," added Deputy Project Manager Richard Cook after the landing. "Seriously. Was that not cool?"

Applause erupted across the campus of the JPL in La Cañada Flintridge and engineers inside mission control could be seen hugging and weeping with joy. Al Chen, an engineer on Curiosity's entry, descent and landing team, said the words that space scientists had been waiting on for 10 years: "Touchdown confirmed."

"We did it again!" another engineer shouted.

Hundreds watched the event at JPL.

“America, baby. We are No. 1,” chanted a few crowd members. Tears were not an uncommon sight as families from all over Los Angeles embraced.

“We did it, we did it!” echoed through the auditorium. Another wave of emotion hit as the first image from Mars ran across two large projection screens featured at the main stage of the room. One more wave of applause for the next image. 

“USA! USA!” chanted the crowd, followed by an even louder “JPL! JPL!”

President Obama described the landing as an “unprecedented feat of technology... Tonight, on the planet Mars, the United States of America made history.”

The landing site was 154 million miles from home, enough distance that the spacecraft's elaborate landing sequence had to be automated. The Earth also "set" below the Mars horizon shortly before landing, making even delayed direct communication with mission control impossible — and confirmation of Curiosity's fate tricky.

Engineers were waiting for a passing satellite, Odyssey, to relay a series of three messages from Curiosity. One would indicate the robot's rough position and how hard it had landed; another would indicate that it was no longer moving; and a third would indicate that the spacecraft was emitting a continuous stream of communication.

If Curiosity's success is confirmed, it would be a moment of triumph for NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is managing the $2.5-billion mission.

PHOTOS: History of Mars exploration

Curiosity is expected to revolutionize the understanding of Mars, gathering evidence that Mars is or was capable of fostering life, probably in microbial form.

The spacecraft is also expected to pave the way for important leaps in deep-space exploration, including bringing Martian rock or soil back to Earth for detailed analysis and, eventually, human exploration. President Obama has established a goal of sending astronauts to Mars in the 2030s — and John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administrator, said on Sunday that humans might one day live there too.

"Curiosity has captured the imagination of the world," Grunsfeld said before the landing. "We're about to do something that I think is just huge for humankind."

INTERACTIVE: Curiosity, from liftoff to landing

A six-wheeled, nuclear-powered geochemistry laboratory, Curiosity is the size of a small car — five times heavier and twice as long as previous Mars rovers. It is equipped with a suite of powerful instruments, including 17 cameras, lasers and a radiation detector. The rover can bore into rock and ingest samples, drawing them into an on-board chemistry lab and then sending the lab results home.

The primary mission is expected to last for at least one Martian year, or 687 Earth days.

--Scott Gold, Tiffany Kelly and Nika Soon-Shiong