NASA's Mars rover Perseverance streaked through the Martian atmosphere on Thursday and landed safely inside a vast crater, the first stop on a search for traces of ancient microbial life on the Red Planet.
Mission managers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Los Angeles burst into applause, cheers and fist-bumps as radio beacons signaled that the rover had survived its perilous descent and arrived as planned on the floor of Jezero Crater, site of a long-vanished Martian lake bed.
The six-wheeled vehicle came to rest about 2 kilometres from towering cliffs at the foot of a remnant fan-shaped river delta etched into a corner of the crater billions of years ago and considered a prime spot for geo-biological study on Mars.
"Touchdown confirmed," Swati Mohan, the lead guidance and operations specialist announced from the control room. "Perseverance safely on the surface of Mars."
The robotic vehicle sailed through space for nearly seven months, covering 472 million kms before piercing the Martian atmosphere at 19,000 km per hour to begin its descent to the planet's surface.
Moments after touchdown, Perseverance beamed back its first black-and-white images from the Martian surface, one of them showing the rover's shadow cast on the desolate, rocky landing site.
Because it takes radio waves 11 minutes to travel from Mars to Earth, the SUV-sized rover had already reached Martian soil by the time its arrival was confirmed by signals relayed to Earth from one of several satellites orbiting Mars.
The spacecraft's self-guided descent and landing during a complex series of maneuvers that NASA dubbed "the seven minutes of terror" stands as the most elaborate and challenging feat in the annals of robotic spaceflight.
Acting NASA chief Steve Jurczyk called it an "amazing accomplishment," adding, "I cannot tell you how overcome with emotion I was."
Deputy Project Manager for the rover, Matt Wallace, said the descent and landing systems "performed flawlessly".
The landing represented the riskiest part of two-year, $2.7 billion endeavor whose primary aim is to search for possible fossilized signs of microbes that may have flourished on Mars some 3 billion years ago, when the fourth planet from the sun was warmer, wetter and potentially hospitable to life.
Scientists hope to find biosignatures embedded in samples of ancient sediments that Perseverance is designed to extract from Martian rock for future analysis back on Earth - the first such specimens ever collected by humankind from another planet.
Two subsequent Mars missions are planned to retrieve the samples and return them to NASA in the next decade, in collaboration with the European Space Agency.
Thursday's landing also came as a triumph for a pandemic-weary United States, still gripped by economic and social upheaval from the COVID-19 pandemic. The public health crisis emerged in the months before the rover was launched in July and complicated execution of the Mars mission.
US President Joe Biden, watching NASA coverage of the event at the White House, tweeted his congratulations, saying, "Today proved once again that with the power of science and American ingenuity, nothing is beyond the realm of possibility."
In a special salute in keeping with virtual communications emblematic of the era, the JPL webcast included a Zoom-like video collage flashing the faces of hundreds of Perseverance team members from home offices where many worked remotely through the pandemic.