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After an eight-month voyage across 352 million miles of interplanetary space, the Mars Science Laboratory plunged through the Red Planet’s atmosphere and landed last night, enduring “seven minutes of terror” in an action-packed descent that culminated with a rocket-powered “sky crane” to lower the one-ton nuclear-powered rover to the surface.

Curiosity radioed confirmation of touchdown at 10:32 p.m. PDT.

Touchdown confirmed. We’re safe on Mars!” said mission control commentator Allen Chen as the flight control team erupted in cheers and applause.

“It’s just absolutely incredible, it doesn’t get any better than this,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “I was a basket case in there, I was really on pins and needles.

Exploring the crater floor and climbing Mount Sharp over the next two years, Curiosity will look for signs of past or present habitability and search for carbon compounds, the building blocks of life as it is known on Earth.

But before the rover’s geological fieldwork can begin, engineers will devote several weeks to carefully checking out Curiosity’s complex systems and testing its state-of-the-art instruments and cameras. DP Review says the slow data rates available and the specifications fixed as far back as 2004 meant Malin Space Science Systems used a 2 Megapixel imager.

The Mars rover is powered by a RAD750, a single-board computer (motherboard, RAM, ROM, and CPU) produced by BAE. The RAD750 is one of the most popular on-board computers for spacecraft. The CPU is a PowerPC 750 (PowerPC G3 in Mac nomenclature) clocked at around 200MHz.

Curiosity has two means of communicationan X band transceiver that can communicate directly with Earth, and a UHF Electra-Lite software-defined radio for communicating with three Mars orbiters including the three orbiters currently surveying the planet, the Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and ESA’s Mars Express.

Communication with orbiters is expected to be the main path for data return to Earth, since the orbiters have both more power and larger antennas than the lander. Of course it takes some 13 minutes, 46 seconds for signals to travel between Earth and Mars, so much of the operation is autonomous.

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) captured this actual picture of the Curiosity rover’s descent.

You can follow the Curiosity rover on Twitter (@MarsCuriosity) and Facebook. NASA TV has a Ustream feed.

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