PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — In a show of technological wizardry, the robotic explorer Curiosity blazed through the pink skies of Mars, steering itself to a gentle landing inside a giant crater for the most ambitious dig yet into the red planet's past.

A chorus of cheers and applause echoed through the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Sunday night after the most high-tech interplanetary rover ever built signaled it had survived a harrowing plunge through the thin Mars atmosphere.

"Touchdown confirmed," said engineer Allen Chen. "We're safe on Mars."

Minutes later, Curiosity beamed back the first black-and-white pictures from inside the crater showing its wheel and its shadow, cast by the afternoon sun — giving earthlings their first glimpse of a touchdown on another world.

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.

The extraterrestrial feat injected a much-needed boost to NASA, which is debating whether it can afford another 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.

"We're on Mars again," said NASA chief Charles Bolden. "It's just absolutely incredible. It doesn't get any better than this."

Over the next two years, Curiosity will drive over to a mountain rising from the crater floor, poke into rocks and scoop up rust-tinted soil to see if the region ever had the right environment for microscopic organisms to thrive. It's the latest chapter in the long-running quest to find out whether primitive life arose early in the planet's history.

The voyage to Mars took more than eight months and spanned 352 million miles. The trickiest part of the journey? The landing. Because Curiosity weighs nearly a ton, engineers drummed up a new and more controlled way to set the rover down. The last Mars rovers, twins Spirit and Opportunity, were cocooned in air bags and bounced to a stop in 2004.

The plans for Curiosity called for a series of braking tricks, similar to those used by the space shuttle, and a supersonic parachute to slow it down. Next: Ditch the heat shield used for the fiery descent.

And in a new twist, engineers came up with a way to lower the rover by cable from a hovering rocket-powered backpack. At touchdown, the cords cut and the rocket stage crashed a distance away.

The nuclear-powered Curiosity, the size of a small car, is packed with scientific tools, cameras and a weather station. It sports a robotic arm with a power drill, a laser that can zap distant rocks, a chemistry lab to sniff for the chemical building blocks of life and a detector to measure dangerous radiation on the surface.

It also tracked radiation levels during the journey to help NASA better understand the risks astronauts could face on a future manned trip.

Over the next several days, Curiosity was expected to send back the first color pictures. After several weeks of health checkups, the six-wheel rover could take its first short drive and flex its robotic arm.

The landing site near Mars' equator was picked because there are signs of past water everywhere, meeting one of the requirements for life as we know it. Inside Gale Crater is a 3-mile-high mountain, and images from space show the base appears rich in minerals that formed in the presence of water.

Previous trips to Mars have uncovered ice near the Martian north pole and evidence that water once flowed when the planet was wetter and toastier unlike today's harsh, frigid desert environment.

Curiosity's goal: to scour for basic ingredients essential for life including carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, sulfur and oxygen. It's not equipped to search for living or fossil microorganisms. To get a definitive answer, a future mission needs to fly Martian rocks and soil back to Earth to be examined by powerful laboratories.

The mission comes as NASA retools its Mars exploration strategy. Faced with tough economic times, the space agency pulled out of partnership with the European Space Agency to land a rock-collecting rover in 2018. The Europeans have since teamed with the Russians as NASA decides on a new roadmap.

Despite Mars' reputation as a spacecraft graveyard, humans continue their love affair with the planet, lobbing spacecraft in search of clues about its early history. Out of more than three dozen attempts — flybys, orbiters and landings — by the U.S., Soviet Union, Europe and Japan since the 1960s, more than half have ended disastrously.

One NASA rover that defied expectations is Opportunity, which is still busy wheeling around the rim of a crater in the Martian southern hemisphere eight years later.

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Mars mission: http://www.nasa.gov/msl

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Follow Alicia Chang's Mars coverage at: http://www.twitter.com/SciWriAlicia

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Anthony E. Avvenire tweeted: "Check out this screen shot. We did. We did indeed."

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Jennifer Vaughn, Planetary Society COO, and Bruce Betts, director of projects for the Planetary Society, are all smiles following the Mars rover landing.

"I would have to say this is the most exciting. It is as if they did it everyday and sharing it with everyone here, it makes me cry! It's really special." -- Vaughn

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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. Tonight’s success, delivered by NASA, parallels our major steps forward towards a vision for a new partnership with American companies to send American astronauts into space on American spacecraft. That partnership will save taxpayer dollars while allowing NASA to do what it has always done best – push the very boundaries of human knowledge. And tonight’s success reminds us that our preeminence – not just in space, but here on Earth – depends on continuing to invest wisely in the innovation, technology, and basic research that has always made our economy the envy of the world.

I congratulate and thank all the men and women of NASA who made this remarkable accomplishment a reality – and I eagerly await what Curiosity has yet to discover.

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This was the first picture of the Martian surface transmitted from Curiosity:

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Listening to the readback of the velocities of landing and remaining fuel reserves shows just how precisely they nailed this landing. It is obvious that they managed every one of these details perfectly. Truly an epic accomplishment. NASA really knows how to do this well.

--Richard Garriott

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"They stuck the landing!"

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Chants in this bar.

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"They just put a one ton truck on a planet 200 million miles away."

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It was very smart of this team to realize the importance of, plan for and accomplish not just the astounding landing, but then immediately send an image back to our immediate needs TV generation.

-Richard Garriott

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Taking pictures beneath the rover to see "see if they landed on a rock or in a ditch," as Kessler puts it. "There is the wheel of the rover safely on the surface of Mars"

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This will go down in history as an amazing accomplishment that will greatly affect the future of humanity. This will help rekindle the belief that we can indeed Dare Mighty Things!

--Richard Garriott

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An image from Curiosity appears on the NASA live stream.

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we are on the ground we must be it is 10.31 all has been going well at JPL everyone is dancing the whole room of planetfest is loudly cheering Another rover is on Mars

We have another success!

--Artemis Westerberg

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--Richard Garriott

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Pandemonium at mission control as touchdown confirmation comes in

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High fives from mission control.

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Rover has landed successfully.

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Sound from JPL is at times hard to understand. Voices are distorted. Loud clapping, we are on target. Parachute deployed. It now only has to slow the hypersonic speed of the spacecraft down.

--Artemis Westenberg, president, Explore Mars

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"We've separated from the shell." Sky crane begins work.

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They are now flying almost level like a plane at Mach 2. (Don’t forget this has alrady all happened 14 minutes before we know about it.)

--Richard Garriott

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Loading Slideshow...
  • Curiosity at Work on Mars

    This artist's concept depicts the rover Curiosity, of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, as it uses its Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument to investigate the composition of a rock surface. ChemCam fires laser pulses at a target and views the resulting spark with a telescope and spectrometers to identify chemical elements. The laser is actually in an invisible infrared wavelength, but is shown here as visible red light for purposes of illustration.

  • Daybreak At Gale Crater

    This computer-generated view depicts part of Mars at the boundary between darkness and daylight, with an area including Gale Crater beginning to catch morning light.

  • Curiosity Launch Vehicle

    The Atlas V 541 vehicle was selected for the Mars Science Laboratory mission because it has the right liftoff capability for the heavy weight requirements of the rover and its spacecraft.

  • Mars Science Laboratory Spacecraft During Cruise

    This is an artist's concept of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft during its cruise phase between launch and final approach to Mars. The spacecraft includes a disc-shaped cruise stage (on the left) attached to the aeroshell. The spacecraft's rover (Curiosity) and descent stage are tucked inside the aeroshell.

  • Curiosity Approaching Mars

    The Curiosity rover is safely tucked inside the spacecraft's aeroshell. The mission's approach phase begins 45 minutes before the spacecraft enters the Martian atmosphere. It lasts until the spacecraft enters the atmosphere.

  • Curiosity Inside Aeroshell

    The Curiosity rover and the spacecraft's descent stage are safely tucked inside the aeroshell at this point. The aeroshell includes a heat shield (on the right, facing in the direction of travel through the atmosphere) and backshell. The diameter of the aeroshell is 14.8 feet (4.5 meters), the largest ever used for a mission to Mars.

  • Mars Science Laboratory Guided Entry At Mars

    The mission's entry, descent, and landing (EDL) phase begins when the spacecraft reaches the top of Martian atmosphere, about 81 miles (131 kilometers) above the surface of the Gale crater landing area, and ends with the rover safe and sound on the surface of Mars. During the approximately seven minutes of EDL, the spacecraft decelerates from a velocity of about 13,200 miles per hour (5,900 meters per second) at the top of the atmosphere, to stationary on the surface.

  • Deceleration of Mars Science Laboratory in Martian Atmosphere

    This artist's concept depicts the interaction of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft with the upper atmosphere of Mars during the entry, descent and landing of the Curiosity rover onto the Martian surface.

  • Mars Science Laboratory Parachute

    This is an artist's concept of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover parachute system.

  • Curiosity While On Parachute

    This is an artist's concept of NASA's Curiosity rover tucked inside the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft's backshell while the spacecraft is descending on a parachute toward Mars. The parachute is attached to the top of the backshell. In the scene depicted here, the spacecraft's heat shield has already been jettisoned.

  • Curiosity And Descent Stage

    This is an artist's concept of the rover and descent stage for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft during the final minute before the rover, Curiosity, touches down on the surface of Mars.

  • Curiosity's Sky Crane Maneuver

    The entry, descent, and landing (EDL) phase of the Mars Science Laboratory mission begins when the spacecraft reaches the Martian atmosphere, about 81 miles (131 kilometers) above the surface of the Gale crater landing area, and ends with the rover Curiosity safe and sound on the surface of Mars.

  • Curiosity Touching Down

    This artist's concept depicts the moment that NASA's Curiosity rover touches down onto the Martian surface.

  • A Moment After Curiosity's Touchdown

    This artist's concept depicts the moment immediately after NASA's Curiosity rover touches down onto the Martian surface.

  • Curiosity Mars Rover

    This artist concept features NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a mobile robot for investigating Mars' past or present ability to sustain microbial life.

  • Curiosity's Close-Up

    In this picture, the mast, or rover's "head," rises to about 2.1 meters (6.9 feet) above ground level, about as tall as a basketball player. This mast supports two remote-sensing instruments: the Mast Camera, or "eyes," for stereo color viewing of surrounding terrain and material collected by the arm; and, the ChemCam instrument, which is a laser that vaporizes material from rocks up to about 9 meters (30 feet) away and determines what elements the rocks are made of.

  • Mars Rover Curiosity

    This artist concept features NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a mobile robot for investigating Mars' past or present ability to sustain microbial life.