Cheers and applause erupted at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena as the landing signal reached Earth at 10:32 p.m. PT. Minutes later, the rover sent back several black-and-white images, one of which showed its shadow.
"I think we all believed it would land successfully, although we were worried because we wouldn't be working on it, and we wouldn't have designed a two-year surface mission," said mission manager Michael Watkins.
On Monday, scientists will pour over the images sent back from Curiosity, which appears to show that the rover is healthy and in working order. NASA also released a photo taken by the Mars orbiter as Curiosity was parachuting down to the surface of Mars.
Curiosity traveled at a rate of 13,000 mph, going from that speed to zero in just seven minutes. The landing was suspenseful because NASA had to use a new method: 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. Scientists called the precarious landing "seven minutes of terror."
"This is huge. It weighs as much as a car, so we couldn't use the tried-and-true landing methods. We had to come up with something new. These EDL guys are fantastic. It was a very complex dance of many different elements," said Mars rover scientist Pan Conrad. "It was pretty spectacular and a little bit of nail-biting because we've never done it before."
Curiosity is a one-ton rover billed by NASA and JPL as the most scientifically advanced robotic vehicle ever dispatched. Over the next two years, the rover will drive over to a mountain rising from the crater floor, poke into rocks and scoop up rust-tinted soil to see if the region ever had the right environment for microscopic organisms to thrive.
"We have ended one phase of the mission, much to our enjoyment ... but another part has just begun," Watkins said.
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. NASA says the information it gathers could pave the way for a man mission.
"There will be science all the time because as we test instruments, we test them by making measurements, so we should be getting little dribbles and drabbles about Mars very quickly," said Conrad.
Curiosity now joins another roving spacecraft, Opportunity, which has been exploring Mars since 2004.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.