Mars rover Curiosity closing in on red planet at 8,000 mph

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Next stop, Mars.

NASA gave a green light of sorts late Sunday for the Mars Science Laboratory and the Curiosity rover, which are mere hours from a nerve-wracking landing on Mars, following an 8 ½ month race to the red planet at 8,000 mph. In this case, a green light is no light at all.

"Nominal sounds like a very boring word, but in the world of spaceflight, nominal is engineer for awesome," noted a blog from NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, which is in charge of Curiosity's screaming descent. All systems seem perfect for the landing, in other words, with rocket scientists at NASA's headquarters more or less observers hoping for the best.

"It's definitely the quiet before the storm," said NASA sciences chief John Grunsfeld. "There's tremendous anticipation."

By the time it arrives at Mars, gravity will have accelerated the spacecraft to a whopping 13,200 mph. NASA must then slow it down.

Following “seven minutes of terror” beginning at 1:31 a.m. EST early Monday morning -- a reference to the nerve-racking landing NASA has planned, which involves Curiosity’s screaming race to the surface and a dangle off a rocket-powered sky crane -- the rover will be set to begin its mission: the study of our planetary neighbor, and the quest for signs of life there.

“Curiosity is the culmination of a decade of exploration. We can now begin to move toward finding the fingerprints of life on Mars,” said Scott Hubbard, a Stanford University consulting professor of aeronautics and astronautics.

The space agency said Curiosity remains in good health, and was steering so smoothly between planets that a planned minor course correction Saturday wasn’t necessary. And with the gravitational pull of Mars already tugging on the spaceship, arrival is being closely monitored by the watchful eyes of mission control.


“After flying more than eight months and 350 million miles since launch, the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft is now right on target to fly through the eye of the needle that is our target at the top of the Mars atmosphere,” said Mission Manager Arthur Amador of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

In keeping with a decades-old tradition, peanuts will be passed around the mission control room at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory for good luck. The space agency said it was optimistic that everything would go according to plan.

A Twitter feed for the rover itself happily chirped Saturday evening, equally optimistic of its imminent arrival at Mars.

“Right now, I'm closer to Mars than the moon is to Earth,” the robot craft wrote.

Earlier in the week, a dust storm swirling to the south of the landing site gave the team some pause. Ashwin Vasavada, the mission's deputy project scientist and Mars weather forecaster, said the storm basically went "poof" and posed no threat. The agency continues to monitor it nonetheless.

"Mars appears to be cooperating very nicely with us. We expect good weather for landing Sunday night," he said.

The distance between the planets remains a stubborn challenge to mission control; due to the signal time lag between Mars and Earth (it takes about 14 minutes for a signal on Mars to zip to Earth), Curiosity will execute the landing autonomously, following the half a million lines of computer code designed by Earthlings.

Curiosity will not be communicating directly with Earth as it lands, because Earth will set beneath the Martian horizon from Curiosity’s perspective about two minutes before the landing.

That spotty communication during landing could delay confirmation for several hours or even days, NASA said. And the rover won’t immediately begin beaming back mind-blowing pictures of Mars.

The first Mars pictures expected from Curiosity are reduced-resolution fisheye black-and-white images received either in the first few minutes after touchdown or more than two hours later. Higher resolution and color images from other cameras could come later in the first week. Plans call for Curiosity to deploy a directional antenna on the first day after landing and raise the camera mast on the second day.

Indeed, the first image we receive may come from a different spacecraft entirely.

Through a remarkable combination of engineering and mathematics, a crew will attempt to precisely position a second satellite -- maneuvering it to just the spot around the giant planet to capture the split second when Curiosity falls from the skies.

“We’re only making one attempt on [Mars Science Laboratory] here,” Christian Schaller of NASA’s High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) team told Universe Today. “The plan is to capture MSL during the parachute phase of descent.”

Curiosity’s journey to Mars hasn’t been without incident. NASA said the craft has been acting as a stunt double for astronauts who might someday follow in its wake, exposing itself to the same cosmic radiation humans would experience following the route to Mars.

“Curiosity has been hit by five major flares and solar particle events in the Earth-Mars expanse,” said Don Hassler of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “The rover is safe, and it has been beaming back invaluable data.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.