Hundreds of Idaho National Laboratory scientists past and present breathed a big sigh of relief as NASA's Mars rover Curiosity made it through an excruciating landing process, touching down on the Martian surface just after 11:30 p.m. Sunday.
The lab developed the nuclear fuel source for Curiosity's battery.
At the Shilo Inn on Sunday night, the scientists who work at the INL's Materials and Fuels complex waited anxiously to hear if Curiosity made it to the Red Planet in one piece.
If there is one word that described the situation, it's “uncertainty.” Experts will tell you that even the distance between Earth and Mars is constantly changing because of the two planets' orbits around the Sun, but on average, Mars is 225 million kilometers away, so there's a lot of uncertainty landing a rover the size of a Mini Cooper there.
Scientists watched the NASA livestream of Curiosity's 7-minute descent with bated breath – six years of work could have been in a heap of metal millions of miles away if things went wrong.
For INL Radioisotope Power Systems Manager Kelly Lively, seeing Curiosity land meant the fuel source her team at INL's Space Battery Center developed will now power the rover all over the Red Planet.
“I am absolutely elated,” said Lively. “What a feeling of accomplishment, and we can't wait to see the scientific information come back from the planet.”
Before Sunday night was through, the first photos came back, showing Curiosity's shadow and a glimpse of one of its wheels on Mars.
It was a proud moment for Marshall Andersen, 13, whose father works in Quality Assurance at the INL.
“I just built a little Mars rover,” he said.
He feels a special connection to that planet, too.
“We all got to put our names on a little disc and our names are going to be on Mars,” he said.
Curiosity will now begin its two-year hunt for the building blocks of life within the Gale Crater on Mars as it seeks to discover if Earthlings are alone.