Damian Dovarganes, File, Associated Press
PASADENA, Calif. — NASA's most high-tech Mars rover on Sunday zeroed in on the red planet where it will attempt a tricky celestial gymnastics routine during a "seven minutes of terror" plummet through the atmosphere.
The Curiosity rover was poised to hit the top of the Martian atmosphere at 13,000 mph. If all goes according to script, it will be slowly lowered by cables inside a massive crater in the final few seconds.
NASA was ready for the "Super Bowl of planetary exploration," said Doug McCuistion, head of the Mars exploration program at NASA headquarters.
"We score and win or we don't score and we don't win," said McCuistion.
If all goes well, mission control at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory should hear a signal at 10:31 p.m. Pacific. The space agency warned that confirmation could take longer if an orbiting spacecraft that's supposed to listen for Curiosity during the descent is not in the right place.
Curiosity's trajectory was so accurate that engineers decided to wave off a last chance to tweak its position before atmosphere entry.
"We're ready to head in," said mission manager Brian Portock.
Not ones to tempt fate, flight controllers planned to break out the "good luck" peanuts before Curiosity takes the plunge as part of a long-running tradition.
One scientist who can relate to the building anxiety is Cornell University planetary scientist Steve Squyres, who headed NASA's last successful rover mission in 2004.
This time around, Squyres has a supporting role and planned to view the landing with other researchers in the "science bullpen."
"Landing on Mars is always a nerve-racking thing. You're never going to get relaxed about something like landing a spacecraft on Mars," said Squyres.
Sunday's touchdown attempt was especially intense because NASA is testing a brand new landing technique. Due to the communication delay between Mars and Earth, Curiosity will be on autopilot. There's also extra pressure because budget woes have forced NASA to rejigger its Mars exploration roadmap.
"There's nothing in the pipeline" beyond the planned launch of a Mars orbiter in 2013, said former NASA Mars czar Scott Hubbard, who teaches at Stanford University.
Curiosity was launched to study whether the Martian environment ever had conditions suitable for microbial life.
The voyage to Mars took over eight months and spanned 352 million miles. The trickiest part of the journey? The landing. Because Curiosity weighs nearly a ton, engineers drummed up 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 series of braking tricks, similar to those used by the space shuttle, and a supersonic parachute to slow it down. Next: Ditch the heat shield used for the fiery descent.
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 cords cut and the rocket stage crashes 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.
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