In a show of technological wizardry, the robotic explorer Curiosity blazed through the pink skies of Mars, steering itself to a gentle landing inside a giant crater for the most ambitious dig yet into the red planet's past.
Cheers and applause echoed through the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory late Sunday after the most high-tech interplanetary rover ever built signaled it had survived a harrowing plunge through the thin Mars atmosphere.
"Touchdown confirmed," said engineer Allen Chen. "We're safe on Mars."
Hundreds of kids and adults of all ages packed the Johnson Space Center in Houston to witness the historic moment.
"I was expecting it to be pretty packed because this is something that's part of our history. I mean it's a huge thing especially here in Houston. It's a part of our space program," said Angela Shepard, who watched the landing.
Minutes after the landing signal reached Earth at 10:32 p.m. PDT, Curiosity beamed back the first black-and-white pictures from inside the crater showing its wheel and its shadow, cast by the afternoon sun.
"We landed in a nice flat spot. Beautiful, really beautiful," said engineer Adam Steltzner, who led the team that devised the tricky landing routine.
On Twitter, Curiosity kept Houstonians up-to-date.
@MarsCuriosity said, "It once was one small step...now six big wheels."
Many other followers on Twitter, including some KPRC employees, commented on the historic journey.
Randy McIlvoy, @RandyMcIlvoy, said "Unlike the vault finals tonight at #london2012, #curiosity stuck its landing quite well on #Mars, those Martian judges should score it well."
Ben Dolman, @bdolman, said "Gold medal for NASA."
George Takei, @GeorgeTakei, said "Touchdown! Congratulations to NASA for a breathtaking landing of #Curiosity on Mars."
Even the president took time to tweet out his excitement. "Tonight, on planet Mars, the United States of America made history," said President Barack Obama, @BarackObama. "I congratulate and thank all the men and women of NASA who made this remarkable accomplishment a reality."
It was NASA's seventh landing on Earth's neighbor. Many other attempts by the U.S. and other countries to zip past, circle or set down on Mars have gone awry.
The arrival was an engineering tour de force, debuting never-before-tried acrobatics packed into "seven minutes of terror" as Curiosity sliced through the Martian atmosphere at 13,000 mph.
In a Hollywood-style finish, cables delicately lowered the rover to the ground at a snail-paced 2 mph. A video camera was set to capture the most dramatic moments -- which would give Earthlings their first glimpse of a touchdown on another world.
Celebrations by the mission team were so joyous over the next hour that JPL Director Charles Elachi had to plead for calm in order to hold a post-landing press conference. He compared the team to athletic teams that participate in the Olympics.
"This team came back with the gold," he said.
The extraterrestrial feat injected a much-needed boost to NASA, which is debating whether it can afford another robotic Mars landing this decade. At a budget-busting $2.5 billion, Curiosity is the priciest gamble yet, which scientists hope will pay off with a bonanza of discoveries and pave the way for astronaut landings.
"The wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze the trail for human footprints on Mars," said NASA chief Charles Bolden.
President Obama lauded the landing in a statement, calling it "an unprecedented feat of technology that will stand as a point of national pride far into the future."
Over the next two years, Curiosity 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. It's the latest chapter in the long-running quest to find out whether primitive life arose early in the planet's history.
The voyage to Mars took more than eight months and spanned 352 million miles. The trickiest part of the journey? The landing. Because Curiosity weighs nearly a ton, engineers drummed up a new and more controlled way to set the rover down. The last Mars rovers, twins Spirit and Opportunity, were cocooned in air bags and bounced to a stop in 2004.
Curiosity relied on a series of braking tricks, similar to those used by the space shuttle, a heat shield and a supersonic parachute to slow down as it punched through the atmosphere.