NASA's Mars rover Curiosity touches down on the Red Planet

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Pasadena (US), Aug 6: An amazing 567-million-km journey ended today as Curiosity, the science rover sent by the National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA), landed on Mars. The touchdown happened at 0532 GMT (11.02 am Indian time).

After receiving signals relayed by the Odyssey satellite which is orbiting the Red Planet, mission controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles confirmed that the rover formally called the Mars Science Laboratory had survived its "Seven Minutes of Terror" descent to the surface.

Moments later, engineers and scientists at the US space agency jumped up from their chairs in joy on seeing a picture that had been sent by Curiosity. It was of the rover's wheels. Another high resolution image arrived soon, showing the horizon.

NASA had earlier described the feat of manoeuvring the one-tonne rover and making it safely land inside a vast crater named Gale on Mars as perhaps the most complex ever in robotic spaceflight.

Curiosity was launched from Cape Canaveral in Nov 2011. The 2.5 billion dollar project is the space agency's first astrobiology mission since the 1970s-era Viking probes. It is designed primarily to search for evidence that the planet most similar to Earth may once have harboured the necessary building blocks for microbial life to evolve.

Over the next two years, the rover will minutely examine the Martian soil. Curiosity has been fitted with a laser gun that can zap a rock from 23 feet (7 meters) away to create a spark whose spectral image is analysed by a special telescope to discern the mineral's chemical composition.

In fact, Gale was chosen as the site for landing because there is a three-mile-high mountain in its centre. The mountain's slopes contain different layers - clay at the bottom, sulfates on top of that, and sand and dust toward the top.

"Rather than getting a snapshot of one point in time on Mars, the mountain will allow Curiosity to build an understanding of hundreds of millions to even billions of years," said John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology.

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