Hurtling through space in the powerful grip of Mars' gravity, NASA's nuclear-powered super rover Curiosity is racing toward a landing in an ancient Martian flood plain.
By 10:31 p.m. Pacific time Sunday, if all goes well, the rover -- a 1-ton, laser-beam-blasting wonder -- will land gently on the dust-blown surface of the Red Planet, then send back snapshots and sample data from the russet surface.
Or it will crash, shattering hopes -- and a $2.5 billion effort to seek clues of life on Earth's closest cousin.
"I am excited, and scared," said NASA Ames geologist David Blake, of Los Altos, who on Saturday drove to Pasadena's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to await the fate of his instrument, a delicate mineral
"We will all be holding our breath," he said. "You do the best you can and hope things will work out."
Earthlings will tune in to the control room at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, with thousands expected to gather to watch from a grassy lawn at Mountain View's NASA Ames and Oakland's Chabot Observatory. Millions more will watch from their couches on NASA TV and the Internet.
The scene won't be of Mars itself, but a command center of sweaty engineers, staring at computers. There will be suspense in a narrated countdown, as Curiosity completes each phase of the descent.
The pre-landing tension of a previous project "felt like the air was sucked out of the room," recalled Blake. Then, with good news,
"the place erupted."
Mars' environs can be a Bermuda Triangle for spaceships. Many attempts to study it have ended in partial or complete failure, with equipment breaking or disappearing under mysterious circumstances.
And this particular descent -- which NASA dubbed "Seven Minutes of Terror" -- is particularly harrowing because the spacecraft is so big and naked.
The size of a Mini Cooper, with no protective cushions, it will race through Mars' thin atmosphere like a shooting star, then slow from 13,000 mph to a standstill in a mere seven minutes.
A precise sequence of engineering marvels must occur the moment the spacecraft hits the top Martian atmosphere, screaming in at a mighty 11 G's of acceleration. It is an Olympian feat, involving parachutes, rockets and a wacky new landing system called a "sky crane."
Its angle must be perfect, or it will either skip off into space or burn itself up in the thin atmosphere.
And it must park in a specific spot on a particular crater -- guided by NASA engineers from 200 million miles away. That's a feat that has been compared to a golfer teeing off in London and hitting a hole-in-one in Auckland, New Zealand.
Without airbags, Curiosity cannot crash, bounce, tumble or roll, as previous spacecraft have done. It must land gently.
How will we know that Curiosity has landed safe and sound? It phones home data. The spacecraft emits radio signals, which are picked up by satellites and then converted into numbers -- ready for analysis by JPL's computers, said JPL spokesman John Sepikas.
Each step of its descent, if successful, will emit a unique pattern of signals -- like a script.
Then, like any good tourist, it will start sending pictures. The first visual images, arriving within hours, will be black-and-white, with low 50-pixel-by-50-pixel resolution. They may not show much -- maybe views of the descent, or the surrounding potholes and boulders. Future images will be more than 1 megapixel -- the iPhone 4S camera, by comparison, features 8 megapixels -- and merged to create panoramas of the strata of surrounding cliffs.
Mars clearly is a planet that has seen better, wetter times. Although now it has a barren and dry surface, there's a wealth of evidence confirming the specific drifts and currents of a warm ocean of water that once flowed there -- and could have fostered the rise of primitive life-forms.
Because Mars has no tectonic plates, and no recycling of its crust, its sedimentary cliffs are the perfect places to look for fossils of early life.
It's a high-risk, high-reward mission.
If Curiosity succeeds, it's two-year-long adventure will represent the most extensive study to date
of the Martian landscape, perhaps answering the age-old question: Are we alone?
But just by getting us there again, NASA is doing its best to recapture the country's sense of wanderlust and imagination.
"The No. 1 visible item for so many years was the shuttle; 100,000 people would show up," said Scott Hubbard, a Stanford University consulting professor of aeronautics and astronautics who led NASA's Pathfinder mission that successfully landed on Mars on July 4, 1997. "Now it's retired. ... Mars is pretty much what is happening. It's the single biggest thing."
With so many eyes watching, Curiosity's end could come, as T.S. Eliot predicted, with a whimper, not a bang. There will be no crash or explosion -- rather, silence, if engineers don't see the necessary data patterns.
The team won't quit right away but will work systematically through every conceivable failure mode, said Sepikas, including the possibility of broken wheels, lousy weather, faulty transmission or a computer buffer so full that it can't transfer more data.
Only then will Curiosity be abandoned, in the chill and dusty Martian badlands, too hurt to heal and too far to be saved.
Contact Lisa M. Krieger at 650-492-4098.
BAY AREA 'CURIOSITY' VIEWING EVENTS
Here's where you can watch Sunday night's landing, expected about 10:30 p.m. Pacific time.
Mountain View NASA Ames Research Center: Moffett Field, Shenandoah Plaza Time: 5 p.m.-midnight (doors open at 4 p.m.) Web: www.nasa.gov/centers/ames/events/2012/ames-curiosity.html Highlights: Booths, "Ask a Scientist," renowned Mars expert Chris McKay, live broadcast from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory Oakland Chabot Space and Science Center: 10000 Skyline Blvd., Oakland Web: www.chabotspace.org/calendar.htm?date8-5-2012&;p1834435 Highlights: Extended museum hours, live NASA feed. Investigate Mars and life on other planets, build robots, discover post-shuttle NASA plans
(c)2012 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)
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