NASA's robotic explorer Curiosity has touched down on Mars and Concordia College physics professor Heidi Manning is cheering the development. She's assigned to analyze data coming back from the lander, and stayed up Sunday night to watch the spacecraft's descent to the Martian surface.
"I was watching NASA TV, and just watching to see what happened, and it was pretty fun to see all the stages of the entry, decent and landing, all come through, just as they predicted," she said.
Manning is on sabbatical from Concordia to work full time with the U.S. space agency over the next year. She says she expects the work to unfold slowly, as engineers gradually turn on and test the rover's equipment and instruments.
"Because its so sophisticated, NASA's kind of taking their time to open up and turn on the spacecraft fully. They'll do a very slow check out of all the instruments. You know, I think its a day or two before they even raise the mast that has the camera that's going to get us even better pictures," she said.
Manning's speciality is using mass spectrometers to analyze the atmospheric composition on earth and around other objects in our solar system. She's also worked on a probe sent to Saturn.
SEVEN MINUTES OF TERROR
In a show of technological wizardry, the robotic explorer blazed through the pink skies of Mars, before steering itself to a gentle landing inside a giant crater for the most ambitious dig yet into the red planet's past.
Minutes after the landing signal reached Earth at 10:32 p.m. PDT, Curiosity beamed back the first black-and-white pictures from inside a 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.
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.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)