"That was awesome," one woman said, wiping her eyes and clasping her colleague's hand. A few minutes later, a splotchy red and brown image appeared on the control room's main screen – InSight's first photograph from its new home.
"Flawless," declared JPL's chief engineer, Rob Manning.
"This is what we really hoped and imagined in our mind's eye," he said. "Sometimes things work out in your favour."
A pair of mini satellites trailing InSight since their May liftoff provided practically real-time updates of the spacecraft's supersonic descent through the reddish skies. The satellite also shot back a quick photo from Mars' surface.
The image was marred by specks of debris on the camera cover. But the quick look at the vista showed a flat surface with few if any rocks – just what scientists were hoping for. Much better pictures will arrive in the hours and days ahead.
"This thing has a lot more to do," said entry, descent and landing systems engineer Rob Grover. "But just getting to the surface of Mars is no mean feat."
The interminable stretch from the moment a spacecraft hits the Martian atmosphere to the second it touches down on the Red Planet's rusty surface is what scientists call "the seven minutes of terror."
Landing a spacecraft on Mars is as difficult as it sounds. More than half of all missions do not make it safely to the surface. Because it takes more than seven minutes for light signals to travel 100 million miles to Earth, scientists have no control over the process. All they can do is program the spacecraft with their best technology and wait.
Earlier, project manager Tim Hoffin said the success of the landing will not be fully clear for a number of hours.
"We'll definitely have a celebration when we get successfully landed but we're going to have to temper that just a little bit while we wait about five-and-a-half hours to know absolutely for sure we're in good shape , "he said.
InSight will spend 24 months – about one Martian year – using seismic monitoring and underground temperature readings to unlock mysteries about how Mars was formed and, by extension, the origins of the earth and other rocky planets of the inner solar system.
While earth's tectonics and other forces have erased most evidence of its early history, much of Mars – about one-third the size of earth – is believed to have remained largely static, creating a geologic time machine for scientists.
It's NASA's first Mars landing in six years.
More to come
AAP, Washington Post