NASA's "Curiosity," the well-named Mars explorer, landed safely on that red planet last night to great relief and cheers from watching scientists. A few minutes later, the first pictures of the planet's surface were being transmitted back to Earth.
Curiosity is far bigger than the earlier rovers that have been sent to Mars and it is packed with the most sophisticated movable laboratory that has ever been sent to another planet. The plan is that it will spend at least two years examining rocks within the 96-mile crater where it landed. It will be looking for carbon-based molecules and other evidence that early Mars had conditions that were amenable to life. The rover is powered by electricity generated from the heat of a chunk of plutonium and it is possible that it could continue operating and sending pictures for many years to come until it finally wears out.
Its safe landing was no sure thing. Some scientists have described the interval of the landing sequence as "seven minutes of terror" until the engineers holding their collective breath in the laboratories responsible for designing and building the craft could be sure that everything had gone according to plan. In the end, everything did. Amazing!
We need to be doing more of this kind of space exploration. Let's hope that the success of this project will encourage us to do it.