Scientists have been able to scan early images of an ancient crater on Mars. They believe it may hold clues about whether life forms once existed on Earth's nearest neighbor.
Late Monday (U.S. time), NASA's nuclear-powered rover Curiosity beamed the probe's first low-resolution video back to Earth showing its final moments of descent to the red planet.
The full video was "just exquisite," said Michael Malin, chief scientist of the mission.
Grainy black-and-white photographs of Martian gravel, a mountain at sunset, and the red planet's hazy atmosphere, could also be seen in the seven-minute transmission.
In one photograph from a camera placed on the front of the rover, "if you squinted and looked the right way, you could see a silhouette of Mount Sharp in the setting sun," said John Grotzinger, chief mission scientist from the California Institute of Technology, when commenting on the first images transmitted back to NASA headquarters in California.
The photos show "a new Mars we have never seen before," said mission manager Mike Watkins.
"So every one of those pictures is the most beautiful picture I have ever seen," he added.
'Miracle of engineering'
Curiosity landed right on target late Sunday night, after completing its eight-month, 566 million kilometer (352 million mile) journey from Earth to the red planet.
NASA scientists hailed Curiosity's flawless descent and landing on Mars as a "miracle of engineering."
The space agency plans to continue its decade-long search for Mars' lost water with missions across the planet to see if Earth's neighbor once harbored ingredients necessary for sustaining life.
The one-ton, six-wheeled rover is NASA's first astrobiology mission since the 1970s Viking probes.
Astronauts to Mars
Due to budget constraints, NASA was forced to cancel a planned joint U.S.-European mission to Mars, scheduled for 2016 and 2018.
"If Curiosity finds something interesting," NASA Chief, Charlie Bolden told The Associated Press in an interview, "then it could spur the public and congress to provide more money for more Martian exploration." No matter what, he added "Curiosity's mission will help NASA as it tries to send astronauts to Mars by the mid-2030s."
jlw/sej (AP, AFP, Reuters)