Curiosity, the largest and most advanced spacecraft ever sent to another planet, appears to have landed on Mars to begin its pioneering, two-year hunt for the building blocks of life — signs that Earth’s creatures may not be alone in the universe.
The craft was scheduled to land at 10:31 p.m. Pacific time in an ancient geological feature known as Gale Crater.
The landing site was 154 million miles from home, enough distance that the spacecraft's elaborate landing sequence had to be automated. The Earth also "set" below the Mars horizon shortly before landing, making even delayed direct communication with mission control impossible — and confirmation of Curiosity’s fate tricky.
Engineers were waiting for a passing satellite, Odyssey, to relay a series of three messages from Curiosity. One would indicate the robot’s rough position and how hard it had landed; another would indicate that it was no longer moving; and a third would indicate that the spacecraft was emitting a continuous stream of communication.
If Curiosity’s success is confirmed, it would be a moment of triumph for NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, which is managing the $2.5-billion mission.