NASA braces for ‘7 minutes of terror’ Mars plunge

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PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — Hurtling ever closer to Mars, NASA's most high-tech interplanetary rover prepared for the riskiest part of its journey: diving through the Martian atmosphere and pulling off a new landing routine.

Nerves will be on overdrive Sunday night as the Curiosity rover attempts a dizzying “seven minutes of terror” routine that ends with it being lowered by cables inside a massive crater if all goes according to script.

Hours before the 10:31 p.m. PDT planned touchdown, Curiosity was in excellent health and speeding toward the top of Mars’ thin atmosphere.

“We’re having a very clean ride right now. It’s a little spooky,” said Allen Chen, an engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the $2.5 billion mission.

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. 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 took over eight months and spanned 352 million miles. The landing will be the trickiest part of the journey. 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.

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