As the rover Curiosity entered the Mars atmosphere, it traveled at a rate of 13,000 mph. It went from that speed to zero in just seven minutes. That monumental feat is why the precarious landing was called "seven minutes of terror."
Adding to the suspense, this type of landing had never been attempted before. NASA tested out a new routine: Curiosity steered itself part of the way and ended on what officials called the "rover rope," dangling by cables until its six wheels touched the ground.
Moments after its landing had been confirmed, the rover sent back black-and-white images, one of which showed its shadow.
The anticipation at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge had been building. Because of delayed communications across 35 million miles of space, it took mission controllers about 14 minutes to find out if their "seven minutes of terror" paid off in a successful landing.
Curiosity is a one-ton, car-sized rover billed by NASA and JPL as the most scientifically advanced robotic vehicle ever dispatched. It carries 10 science instruments, including a mast that extends to seven feet above ground for cameras and a laser-firing apparatus to study objects from a distance. The rover also includes analytical instruments to determine the composition of rock and soil samples collected with the rover arm's drill and scoop. It also includes instruments to study the planet's environment.
NASA says the information it gathers could pave the way for a man mission. Previous missions have found ice and signs that water once flowed.
The Curiosity's target is Gale Crater near the equator, which scientists think is a place where water once flowed. This is a good starting point to learn whether microbes could exist there. Life as we know it requires three ingredients: water, energy and carbon. The missing piece so far is finding carbon.
One of Curiosity's main tasks is to drive to the mountain at the floor of Gale, chisel rocks and dig into soil in search of the elusive element.
"Tonight, on the planet Mars, the United States of America made history," said President Barack Obama in a statement. " "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."
Curiosity now joins another roving spacecraft, Opportunity, which has been exploring Mars since 2004.
The Associated Press and City News Service contributed to this report.