- Associated Press - Monday, August 6, 2012

PASADENA, CALIF. (AP) - NASA’s most high-tech Mars rover plunged into the red planet’s atmosphere Sunday night in an attempt to safely reach the surface with a complex new landing technique.

The Curiosity rover 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 of the seven-minute descent.

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 about 10:31 p.m. PDT. 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 could 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.

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