Rover 'Curiosity' Now in Clutches of Mars' Gravity

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NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory is in position to thread itself into the Red Planet’s atmosphere early Monday, the first step in a do-or-die descent and landing.

“Tonight is it,” NASA’s Mars exploration program chief Doug McCuistion told reporters on Sunday. “It’s the Super Bowl of planetary exploration — one yard line, one play left. We score and win or we don’t score and we don’t win.

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“If we’re successful, we are going to have the opportunity for untold discoveries. If we’re not, we’ll pick ourselves up, we’ll dust off, we’ll do it again, but I think we’re going to stick the landing,” he said.

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Saturday night, Mars Science Lab, nicknamed Curiosity, started feeling the effects of Mars’ gravity, adding speed to an approach already exceeding 8,000 mph.

The probe, nicknamed Curiosity, is aiming to slam into Mars’ atmosphere about 400 miles away from its landing site — an ancient impact basin known as Gale Crater, located about where Australia is positioned on Earth.

Flight controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., are forecasting good weather for Curiosity’s touchdown near a three-mile high mountain rising from the crater’s floor.

The pink Martian skies should be clear, with temperatures around 10 degrees Fahrenheit (-12 degrees Celsius).

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It’ll be a much more hectic scene at mission control, where more than 1,400 scientists, engineers and guests, including White House science advisor John Holdren, are expected to watch the landing.

NASA hopes to have its aging Mars Odyssey spacecraft in position to relay signals real-time during the rover’s descent and touchdown, but it won’t know until about 20 minutes before Curiosity’s planned 1:31 a.m. EDT landing whether that will happen. If Odyssey, which lost one of its steering wheels in June, can’t be coaxed into position, NASA may need several hours to learn Curiosity’s fate.

Two other spacecraft will be monitoring the descent and landing, but that data will be recorded and transmitted back to Earth later.

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At this point, it’s a waiting game.

“We’re all along for the ride,” said Adam Steltzner, head of Curiosity’s landing team.

Image: Artist’s rendering of Mars Science Lab entering Mars’ orbit. The pink dashes illustrate the spacecraft’s direct communications link to Earth, which will about two minutes after its parachute opens because Earth sets, relative to the spacecraft’s position. UHF radio data, portrayed by the blue circles, require relay by Mars-orbiting spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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