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LIVE NOW: Mars Rover’s High-Wire Landing

Filed by KOSU News in Science.
August 6, 2012

When it comes to visitors, Mars can be a reclusive, get-off-of-my-lawn world. Of 13 previous attempts to land space probes on the Red Planet over the past four decades, nearly half failed or immediately lost contact.

Those odds are enough to make tonight’s scheduled landing of NASA’s new rover, Curiosity, a tense, hold-your-breath moment. But the space agency’s plan to use a hovering, rocket-powered “sky crane” to lower the $2.5 billion, nuclear-powered robot 60 feet or so to the Martian surface almost guarantees it will be a suspenseful night at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Just to complicate things, the rover’s rapid-fire descent and landing is entirely automated. With more than 150 million miles separating Earth and Mars, round-trip communications between Curiosity and its far-off human overseers would take nearly half an hour.

“Curiosity is on its own through all this,” says NPR science correspondent Joe Palca, who is monitoring the Mars mission in Pasadena. “Earth is too far away help if things go wrong.”

The communications lag is also why we won’t know whether the rover has successfully landed until 1:31 a.m. ET on Monday, even though landfall is actually scheduled for 14 minutes earlier, at 1:17 a.m. ET. (That’s 10:17 p.m. PT on Sunday for the mission controllers in Pasadena.)

NASA TV is streaming live video tonight. We’ll post updates below as the landing time approaches.

Update at 12:20 a.m. ET. The Landing Site

Curiosity’s destination is Gale Crater, where the six-wheeled rover is expected to spend at least two years looking for signs of water or possibly a long-gone lake.

Samuel Kounaves, a chemistry professor at Tufts University, talked to NPR’s Joe Palca and science writer Jessica Stoller-Conrad about the mission’s scientific goals. The rover “is not going to be looking for life directly, but it’s going to be looking for past habitability,” Kounaves told them. “We’re looking to see if the elements required for life are there.”

Gale Crater is nearly 100 miles across. Curiosity will try to land in a relatively flat area between the crater’s rim and the steep slopes of Mount Sharp. The landing zone — 4 miles wide and 12 miles long — was narrowed recently to try to place Curiosity closer to the three-mile-high mountain, where scientists hope the rover will uncover layers of Martian history.

Mount Sharp was named for Robert P. Sharp, an influential planetary geologist who died in 2004. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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