PASADENA, Calif. — NASA’s rover Curiosity touched down deep in a Martian crater early Monday after a picture-perfect descent and landing, beginning what promises to be one of the most ambitious planetary missions in history.

Jubilant NASA engineers and scientists let out a loud and prolonged whoop when the data came in indicating that the one-ton rover had touched down. It remains unknown exactly what shape the $2.5 billion rover is in, but the fact that it survived its “seven minutes of terror” descent was cheered like the grandest Olympic triumph.

The descent and touchdown were tracked by the Mars orbiter Odyssey, which allowed Curiosity to send black-and-white “fisheye” or wide-angle images within minutes of the rover’s wheels on the ground. Two hours later, Odyssey passed over again and relayed other more highly defined images, including one that appeared to show the distant rim of the Gale Crater landing site.

“It doesn’t get any better than this,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “This is a huge day for the American people.”

At a news conference Monday, Mike Watkins, manager for the Curiosity mission said, “The surface mission of curiosity has now begun.”

“We built this rover… not just to land on Mars,” he continued. “We have ended one phase of the mission, much to our enjoyment … but another part has just begun.

“We’re just starting that mission, we’re not ending it.”

Roughly two hours after landing, Curiosity called the Jet Propulsion Laboratory team via Odyssey, giving the team an opportunity to get more information about the rover’s status. “She’s in surface nominal mode,” said Watkins.

“We are a go for all plans on SOL-1 activities,” plans that Watkins described as “kind of boring,” including system checks to make sure the rover is fully operational. The first order of business: Making sure communications back to Earth are healthy.

The mission team also showed a black-and-white image of the rover taken six minutes after it entered the atmosphere. The image, taken by HiRise, or High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, presents enough detail to show the rover landing on the surface of Mars with parachutes deployed.

Earlier Monday, President Obama offered his congratulations in a statement and said:

“Tonight, on the planet Mars, the United States of America made history.

“The successful landing of Curiosity — the most sophisticated roving laboratory ever to land on another planet — marks an unprecedented feat of technology that will stand as a point of national pride far into the future. It proves that even the longest of odds are no match for our unique blend of ingenuity and determination.”

Described by top NASA officials as their “mission of the decade,” the just-delivered rover will search for the building blocks of extraterrestrial life as well as investigate how and why Mars turned from a wet and warm planet into the dry and cold place it is now. The complex, precision landing and sophisticated instruments being used on the mission could hasten the day when humans fly to Mars as well.

The excitement and jubilation burst into a bedlam scene of hugs, smiles and high-fives an hour after touchdown when the entire Entry, Descent and Landing team entered a nearby auditorium for a news conference-turned celebration.

“The team went to the Olympics, and we weren’t sure what would happen,” Charles Elachi, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told the crowd. “But you came back with the gold.”

The landing took place within the 9-by-3-mile ellipse selected for touchdown. Entry, Descent and Landing team leader Adam Steltzner said that the rover appeared to have landed in a “nice flat spot”; other NASA officials said it seemed to have landed on rock rather than sand, which would have made movement potentially more difficult. The rover is believed to be close to its ultimate destination, three-mile-high Mount Sharp.

Mission science lead John Grotzinger said the team will take a few weeks to check the instruments before beginning its trek. He said Curiosity appeared to have landed in a “very interesting place” that probably deserved some serious investigation, and that as a result it might take a year to get to the base of Mount Sharp.

The spaceship containing the Mars Science Laboratory traveled 354 million miles since its Nov. 26 launch. The rover landed at exactly 1:32 a.m. Eastern time — 10:32 p.m. Sunday in Pasadena — as planned months ago.

The initial images it transmitted were taken by hazard cameras near the bottom of the 10-foot long rover, and will soon be followed by far more sophisticated color pictures and even video. But the image of the rover’s silhouette on the Martian soil, in particular, was embraced as an emblem of the mission’s success.

The spacecraft went into entry mode almost 50 minutes before landing – meaning that mission control could do virtually nothing to control it beyond that point. Soon after, Steltzner told the engineers in mission control that the spacecraft was about to enter the Martian atmosphere in “fantastic” shape.

Mission officials had been concerned that the satellite Odyssey might not be able to move into the correct position to listen as the rover entered the atmosphere. But 20 minutes before entry, mission control learned the satellite had made the necessary moves and could track the entire descent and landing.

The many milestones in the descent were met with loud applause and relieved laughter as one bit of good news came in after another.

But the cheers were as much release as happiness.

“The tension in the mission control was higher than I’d ever experienced,” said Jean-Lou Chameau, president of the California Institute of Technology, which officially operates the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Such adrenaline running, and then suddenly it was over and had landed. What a moment.”

NASA’s chief scientist, John Grunsfeld, said a few hours before the landing that, “we’re about to do something that I think is just huge for humankind – put this chemistry lab on the surface of Mars that can rove, that can see, and that’s going to provide scientists on Earth a glimpse into the past history of Mars.”

He likened the public excitement about Curiosity to the first Apollo moon landing in 1969, and noted that the rover’s landing day coincided with the birthday of Neil Armstrong, the first moon walker.

“We’re going to nail it for Neil,” Grunsfeld said. “Curiosity will set us up for the day when men and women will land on the surface of Mars, and it might not be that far away.”

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