The pinpoint landing of the rover Curiosity on Mars early Monday went as planned, to the jubilation of NASA scientists. But the budget for the Mars program is on the chopping block, as Washington grapples with debt and deficit.
Engineers and technicians behind NASA's Mars exploration program once again have turned in a performance worthy of a Michael Phelps: a gentle, pinpoint landing of a 1-ton, Mini Cooper-size rover named Curiosity on the surface of Mars.
The $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory mission – with the heaviest, most capable robotic explorer ever to land on another planet – aims to help determine whether Gale Crater and its central summit, informally known at Mt. Sharp, could have hosted life early in Mars' history.
After an eight-month trip covering some 352 million miles, the rover's unique self-guided landing system planted Curiosity's wheels firmly on Martian soil at 1:14 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, the navigation team reported before handing the rover over to a new shift. It took another 14 minutes for the rover's "I'm here" signals to reach Earth.
The landing took place with pinpoint precision: Preliminary data show that the rocket-powered sky crane that lowered Curiosity to the surface on cables set the rover down slightly more than a mile from the base of Mt. Sharp, the ultimate destination scientists have placed on the rover's itinerary.
"That's extraordinary," says Chuck Baker, one of the planners behind the craft's successful trip.
During a post-landing briefing early Monday morning, John Holdren, President Obama's science adviser, noted that "by any measure this was the most challenging mission ever attempted in the history of robotic planetary exploration.