NASA Hits Mars Bullseye (updated)

In a jaw dropping feat of engineering and technical wizardry, NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander touched down on the surface of the Red Planet at 7:53 EDT last night after a journey of 9 months and more than 440 million miles:

During the final, tense minutes of the descent, long stretches of quiet in the mission support room were punctuated by cheers and clapping as confirmation of crucial events like the deployment of the parachute were confirmed.

Then, at 7:53 p.m. Eastern time, Richard Kornfeld, the lead communications officer for entry, descent and landing, announced: "Touchdown signal detected."

The mission controllers, wearing identical blue polo shirts made for the occasion, erupted in cheers and began hugging one another in congratulations.

"It was better than we could have possibly wished for," said Barry Goldstein, the project manager for the mission. "We rehearsed over and over again. We rehearsed all of the problems, and none of them occurred. It was perfect, just the way we designed it."

At 9:53 p.m., there were more cheers as confirmation came that one more critical event, the unfolding of the solar arrays, had occurred without problem. And then the first pictures arrived: black-and-white images of the solar panels, of one of the lander's footpads and of surrounding terrain, showing the polygonal fractures caused by repeated thawing and freezing.

The accuracy of landing exactly where they expected and wanted to is unreal. It was explained as firing an arrow from the pitchers mound at Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles and hitting home plate at Wrigley Field in Chicago. But the course was so accurate that the scientists didn't need to make a last course correction that was scheduled for yesterday morning.

I wrote a background piece on the mission

They named the craft The Phoenix because the mission utilized elements from the failed Mars Polar Lander that crash landed 9 years ago after the rocket engines shut off prematurely due to a faulty sensor on the landing bag.

The science that will be carried out on the surface of Mars by the Phoenix will revolutionize our understanding of the history of Mars and possibly even confirm that life existed on the Red Planet at some time in the distant past.

Update from Amil Imani:  Video: Touching Story of Firouz Naderi NASA Director of MARS exploration