NASA has its eyes on Mars rover

Engineers eager for planned landing on red planet Sunday

Engineers work on a model of the Mars rover Curiosity at the Spacecraft Assembly Facility at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., After traveling 8½ months and 352 million miles, Curiosity attempts a landing on Mars late Sunday night. Enlarge photo

Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press file photo

Engineers work on a model of the Mars rover Curiosity at the Spacecraft Assembly Facility at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., After traveling 8½ months and 352 million miles, Curiosity attempts a landing on Mars late Sunday night.

PASADENA, Calif. – The most high-tech rover NASA has ever designed neared arrival at Mars on Sunday to attempt an acrobatic landing on the planet’s surface.

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 into a massive crater by cables in the final few seconds.

With Curiosity on autopilot, engineers became spectators, anxiously waiting to see if Curiosity executes the routine as planned.

“I’m not the nervous type, but I haven’t been sleeping all that well the last week or so even though I’m still very confident,” said engineer Steven Lee.

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.

Like football’s Super Bowl, there were celebrities on hand. More than a dozen were invited to watch the landing at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, including will.i.am, Wil Wheaton, Seth Green, Morgan Freeman and Alex Trebek.

If all goes well, mission control at the JPL should hear a signal at late Sunday. 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.

“It’s definitely the quiet before the storm,” said NASA sciences chief John Grunsfeld. “There’s tremendous anticipation.”

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. Because of 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.