BOISE -- The Mars rover "Curiosity" touched down on the red planet Sunday night, and people celebrated around the country from the NASA lab in California to Times Square in New York City. Dozens of Idaho scientists had extra victory to celebrate because they had a direct part in the project.
Between 60 and 70 scientists from the Idaho National Laboratory in eastern Idaho worked for nine years on a radioactive battery for Curiosity, and there are BSU and University of Idaho graduates who've also spent years on other parts of the rover.
With that much work invested, the landing is still almost hard to describe.
"It was fantastic. I mean, that was just... that was a lot of years of my life that just culminated into one evening, so it was a nail biter but man did it come out okay," NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Electronics Engineer and University of Idaho graduate Matthew Braley said.
Braley says he was in California watching with others on NASA's live television feed. He says he felt like he held his breath during the final minutes before the confirmed landing. An INL scientist who watched live online from Idaho described the same sensation.
"That's a pretty impressive system. A lot of stuff has to happen and has to happen in the right order. So yeah, I held my breath a little bit watching that go down for the seven minutes or so," INL Director of Space Nuclear Systems and Technology Division Stephen Johnson said.
Johnson and other INL scientists held a watch party with their families on Sunday night. They gathered at the Idaho Falls Shilo Hotel
"We set up a couple big screens. One was hooked up to the Internet to the direct feed from the jet propulsion lab, so we would have the control room footage there. Another one had lots of different work shots of different operations we had assembling and testing the power system," Johnson said. "That was so that we could really get the families involved and see what everybody had been putting so much overtime work into over the last several years."
With the $100 million battery being created and worked on right in Idaho, Johnson hopes others will be inspired by the science that happens in the Gem State.
"Just a tremendous feeling of satisfaction. It was absolutely wonderful watching something that had more or less a "made in Idaho" sticker on it getting to the Red Planet." Johnson said. "I hope each and every person in the state of Idaho who hears this takes a little bit of pride of accomplishment and really thinks about the neat things that people from Idaho can accomplish."
INL has another battery speeding through space right now, which is scheduled to land on Pluto in 2015. Scientists say in comparison, this Mars battery was like instant gratification with "only" an 8-month trip.
Braley worked on the rover's avionics says this landing will forever change exploration of our solar system. He says the technology working this far in the project is already a big accomplishment with major implications for space exploration.
"I mean, it's huge. The amount of information that we gathered, the technology that was proven and the amount of science that we're going to learn about Mars is just absolutely mind boggling," Braley said.
Curiosity has already sent back some pictures from the surface of Mars. It will spend two years on Mars looking for signs of life, past or present.
"I think it would be neat to find signs of life. I think it would be neat to find maybe subsurface deposits of water which would enable it to be used as a refueling station for mankind if they wanted to study the solar system. Those are things I think would be absolutely wonderful to find there," Johnson said.
Braley also hopes Curiosity will find signs of life. He says this rover mission is critical to determining the future of exploration of the solar system. He says the rover is equipped to find out what elements of life might have been on the red planet, and what elements may remain.
"We've found the water [on Mars]. We've found the geology that says there was water there in the past. So now if everything is there that we know of here on earth as being part of life, then it may be there right now, which would allow us to essentially figure out if we want to go there. Do we want to send astronauts or do we want to do sample returns? What other things can we find out in the future? But we need to know this first," Braley said.
Braley has already moved on to another NASA project. He explained it as a large radar dish in space that will map out where water is on the earth's surface. He says that will allow climate scientists to better predict and adjust models.