Touchdown: NASA rover Curiosity lands on Mars

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PASADENA, CALIF. (AP) - The robotic explorer Curiosity’s daring plunge through the pink skies of Mars was more than perfect. It landed with spectacular style, said a NASA scientist, describing the first images of its mechanical gymnastics.

Hours after NASA learned the rover had arrived on target, engineers and scientists got the first glimpses of the intricate maneuvers it made to hit the Martian soil safely.

“It’s a spectacular image,” said NASA research scientist Luther Beegle. The photo, taken from an orbiting Mars spacecraft, shows Curiosity dangling from its supersonic parachute as it descended.

Extraordinary efforts were needed for the landing because the rover weighs one ton, and the Martian atmosphere is very thin, not offering much friction to slow the spacecraft down.

More images, including video of the landing and beautiful color shots of Mars, will follow in days to come. It will be weeks before Curiosity starts digging into the red planet’s past.

Cheers and applause echoed through the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory late Sunday after signals from space indicated Curiosity had survived the harrowing plunge.

“Touchdown confirmed,” said engineer Allen Chen. “We’re safe on Mars.”

Minutes after the landing signal reached Earth at 10:32 p.m. PDT, Curiosity beamed back the first black-and-white pictures from inside the crater showing its wheel and its shadow, cast by the afternoon sun.

“We landed in a nice flat spot. Beautiful, really beautiful,” said engineer Adam Steltzner, who led the team that devised the tricky landing routine.

It was NASA’s seventh landing on Earth’s neighbor; many other attempts by the U.S. and other countries to zip past, circle or set down on Mars have gone awry.

The arrival was an engineering tour de force, debuting never-before-tried acrobatics packed into “seven minutes of terror” as Curiosity sliced through the Martian atmosphere at 13,000 mph.

In a Hollywood-style finish, cables delicately lowered the rover to the ground at a snail-paced 2 mph. A video camera was set to capture the most dramatic moments _ which would give Earthlings their first glimpse of a touchdown on another world.

JPL Director Charles Elachi compared the team to Olympic athletes.

“This team came back with the gold,” he said.

The extraterrestrial feat injected a much-needed boost to NASA, which is debating whether it can afford another robotic Mars landing this decade. At a budget-busting $2.5 billion, Curiosity is the priciest gamble yet, which scientists hope will pay off with a bonanza of discoveries and pave the way for astronaut landings.

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