PASADENA: The Mars science rover Curiosity landed on the Martian surface shortly after 10:30 p.m. Pacific time on Sunday (1:30 a.m. EDT Monday/0530 GMT) to begin a two-year mission seeking evidence the Red Planet once hosted ingredients for life, NASA said.
Mission controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles said they received signals relayed by a Martian orbiter confirming that the rover had survived a make-or-break descent and landing attempt to touch down as planned inside a vast impact crater. NASA has described the feat as perhaps the most complex ever in robotic spaceflight.
The $2.5 billion Curiosity project, formally called the Mars Science Laboratory, is NASA's first astrobiology mission since the 1970s-era Viking probes. The landing, a major victory for a US space agency beleaguered by budget cuts and the recent loss of its space shuttle program, was greeted with raucous applause and tears of joy by jubilant engineers and scientists at mission control.
After a journey from Earth of more than 350 million miles (567 million km), engineers were confident that the rover, the size of a small sports car, would land precisely as planned near the foot of a tall mountain rising from the floor of Gale Crater in Mars' southern hemisphere.
Facing deep cuts in its science budget and struggling to regain its footing after cancellation of the space shuttle program - NASA's centerpiece for 30 years - the agency has much at stake in the outcome of the $2.5 billion mission.
President Barack Obama's top science adviser, John Holdren, was among the dignitaries visiting JPL on Sunday for the landing, along with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.
"It's critically important for the nation because it allows us to stay on pace for what the president asked us to, getting humans to Mars in the mid-2030s," Bolden told Reuters.
He added that success also was key to NASA's international partners in 12 countries in maintaining public and government support abroad for their continued funding.
Mars is the chief component of NASA's long-term deep space exploration plans. Curiosity, the space agency's first astrobiology mission since the 1970s-era Viking probes, is designed primarily to search for evidence that the planet most similar to Earth may once have harbored the necessary building blocks for microbial life to evolve.
Packed with gadgets
The rover, formally called the Mars Science Lab, is equipped with an array of sophisticated chemistry and geology instruments capable of analyzing samples of soil, rocks and atmosphere on the spot and beaming results back to scientists on Earth.
One is a laser gun that can zap a rock from 23 feet (7 meters) away to create a spark whose spectral image is analyzed by a special telescope to discern the mineral's chemical composition.
Nearing the end of its journey encased in a capsule-like shell, Curiosity was essentially flying on automatic pilot, guided by a computer packed with pre-programmed instructions.
From 154 million miles (248 million kilometers) away, 1,400 scientists, engineers and guests waited at JPL to learn Curiosity's fate, among them film star Morgan Freeman, television's "Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek, comic actor Seth Green and actress June Lockhart of "Lost in Space" fame. Another 5,000 people will be watching from the nearby California Institute of Technology, the academic home of JPL.
In a good-luck tradition dating back to the 1970s, engineers in the control room at JPL plan to break out cans of roasted peanuts about an hour before landing.