History has been made as NASA's largest and most advanced spacecraft ever sent to another planet made an historic and extraordinary landing on Mars.
NASA engineers and officials erupted in cheers and hugs with confirmation that its $2.5 billion Mars Science Lab and Curiosity rover made a successful landing on the surface of the Red Planet around 1:30 a.m EDT Monday.
"Touchdown confirmed," said a member of mission control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory as the room erupted in cheers. "We are wheels down on Mars. Oh, my God."
In a statement issued early Monday shortly after the rover Curiosity landed, President Obama said,
"Tonight, on the planet Mars, the United States of America made history."
Obama says the feat, which gives the space agency a much-needed boost, proves that even the longest odds are no match for American ingenuity and determination.
A dusty image of the rover's wheel on the surface, taken from a rear camera on the vehicle, confirmed the arrival of the car-sized rover and its sophisticated toolkit designed to hunt for signs that life once existed there.
A second image arrived within seconds, showing the shadow of the rover on Mars.
Obama's science advisor John Holdren described the landing as "an enormous step forward in planetary exploration. Nobody has ever done anything like this. We are actually the only country that has landed surface landers on any other planet," he told NASA television.
"But this lander is vastly bigger, vastly more capable and much more complicated to bring in," he added. "It was an incredible performance."
The voyage to Mars took over eight months and spanned 352 million miles.
The landing, involving a seemingly impossible sequence of complex maneuvers, proceeded like clockwork: the capsule containing Curiosity entered the Martian atmosphere, the parachute deployed, the rocket engines fired, the rover was lowered and, finally, the Curiosity was on the ground.
The primary mission is expected to last for at least one Martian year, or 687 Earth days.
Over the first week, Curiosity is to deploy its main antenna, raise a mast containing cameras, a rock-vaporizing laser and other instruments, and take its first panoramic shot of its surroundings.
NASA will spend the first month checking out Curiosity. The first drive could occur early next month. The rover would not test its first sample of Martian soil until mid-September at the earliest, and the first drilling into rock would occur in October or November.
Because Curiosity is powered by electricity generated from the heat of a chunk of plutonium, it could continue operating for years, perhaps decades, in exploring the 96-mile-wide crater where it has landed.
Curiosity is expected to pave the way for future Mars missions, including the first human exploration.
President Obama has set a goal of sending an astronaut to Mars by the 2030s.