In a show of technological wizardry, the robotic explorer Curiosity has blazed through the pink skies of Mars, steering itself to a gentle landing inside a giant crater for the most ambitious dig yet into the red planet's past.
"Touchdown confirmed," said engineer Allen Chen. "We're safe on Mars."
Minutes later on Monday afternoon AEST, Curiosity beamed back the first black-and-white pictures from inside the crater - giving earthlings their first glimpse of a touchdown on another world.
It was NASA's seventh landing on Earth's neighbour.
The arrival was an engineering tour de force, debuting never-before-tried acrobatics packed into "seven minutes of terror" as Curiosity sliced through the Martian atmosphere at 21,000km/h.
In a Hollywood-style finish, cables delicately lowered the rover to the ground at a snail-paced 3km/h. A video camera was set to capture the most dramatic moments.
The extraterrestrial feat injected a much-needed boost to NASA, which is debating whether it can afford another Mars landing this decade. At a budget-busting $US2.5 billion $A2.37 billion, Curiosity is the priciest gamble yet, which scientists hope will pay off with a bonanza of discoveries.
"We're on Mars again," said NASA chief Charles Bolden.
"It's just absolutely incredible. It doesn't get any better than this."
Over the next two years, Curiosity will drive over to a mountain rising from the crater floor, poke into rocks and scoop up rust-tinted soil to see if the region ever had the right environment for microscopic organisms to thrive.
It's the latest chapter in the long-running quest to find out whether primitive life arose early in the planet's history.
The voyage to Mars took more than eight months and spanned 566 million kilometres.
Curiosity weighs nearly a tonne, so engineers came up with a new and more controlled way to set the rover down. The last Mars rovers, twins Spirit and Opportunity, were cocooned in air bags and bounced to a stop in 2004.
The plans for Curiosity called for a supersonic parachute to slow it down.
And in a new twist, engineers came up with a way to lower the rover by cable from a hovering rocket-powered backpack. At touchdown, the rocket stage crashed a distance away.
The nuclear-powered Curiosity, the size of a small car, is packed with scientific tools, cameras and a weather station. It sports a robotic arm with a power drill, a laser that can zap distant rocks, a chemistry lab to sniff for the chemical building blocks of life and a detector to measure dangerous radiation on the surface.
It also tracked radiation levels during the journey to help NASA better understand the risks astronauts could face on a future manned trip.
Over the next several days, Curiosity was expected to send back the first colour pictures. After several weeks of health checkups, the six-wheel rover could take its first short drive and flex its robotic arm.
The landing site near Mars' equator was picked because there are signs of past water everywhere, meeting one of the requirements for life as we know it.
Inside Gale Crater is a five-kilometre-high mountain, and images from space show the base appears rich in minerals that formed in the presence of water.
Curiosity's goal is to scour for basic ingredients essential for life, including carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, sulfur and oxygen.
It's not equipped to search for living or fossil micro-organisms. To get a definitive answer, a future mission needs to fly Martian rocks and soil back to Earth.