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NASA Anxious Over Mars Landing

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Anxiety builds as NASA prepares to land a $2.5 billion shuttle on Mars' surface. (Courtesy of NASA)

Anxiety builds as NASA prepares to land a $2.5 billion shuttle on Mars’ surface. (Courtesy of NASA)

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 (HOUSTON 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 road map.

“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.

The nuclear-powered Curiosity, the size of a small car, is packed with scientific tools, cameras and a weather station. It sports a robotic arm with a power drill, a laser that can zap distant rocks, a chemistry lab to sniff for the chemical building blocks of life and a detector to measure dangerous radiation on the surface.

It also tracked radiation levels during the journey to help NASA better understand the risks astronauts could face on a future manned trip.

After several weeks of health checkups, the six-wheeled rover could take its first short drive and flex its robotic arm.

The landing site near Mars’ equator was picked because there are signs of water everywhere, meeting one of the requirements for life as we know it. Inside Gale Crater is a 3-mile-high mountain, and images from space show the base appears rich in minerals that formed in the presence of water.

Previous trips to Mars have uncovered ice near the Martian north pole and evidence that water once flowed when the planet was wetter and toastier unlike today’s harsh, frigid desert environment.

Curiosity’s goal: To scour for basic ingredients essential for life, including carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, sulfur and oxygen. It’s not equipped to search for living or fossil microorganisms. To get a definitive answer, a future mission needs to fly Martian rocks and soil back to Earth to be examined by powerful laboratories.

The mission comes as NASA retools its Mars exploration strategy. Faced with tough economic times, the space agency pulled out of partnership with the European Space Agency to land a rock-collecting rover in 2018. The Europeans have since teamed with the Russians as NASA decides on a new roadmap.

Despite Mars’ reputation as a spacecraft graveyard, humans continue their love affair with the planet, lobbing spacecraft in search of clues about its early history. Out of more than three dozen attempts — flybys, orbiters and landings — by the U.S., Soviet Union, Europe and Japan since the 1960s, more than half have ended disastrously.

One NASA rover that defied expectations is Opportunity, which is still busy wheeling around the rim of a crater in the Martian southern hemisphere eight years later.

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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