As of this moment, it’s three hours to touchdown for the NASA Curiosity Rover.  The Mars rover Curiosity, on a quest for signs the Red Planet once hosted ingredients for life, streaked into the home stretch of its eight-month voyage on Sunday nearing a make-or-break landing attempt that NASA calls one of the toughest feats of robotic spaceflight.  The landing system has to be reprogrammed in flight a few times depending on what task it faces next – this is the first time any probe has been reprogrammed to this degree, on the fly, during its mission.

The rover will be burning off thousands of miles an hour of descent speed to enable a final drop from a rocket-powered crane drop at the last moment – once the Curiosity rover is on the ground, the crane is supposed to cut the cables and fly clear of the landing site, its last task complete.

We and NASA are now awaiting a nerve-wracking landing on Mars, the most nail-biting part of which is the seven minute lag between the time the Curosity lands (or crashes) on the surface of Mars and the time we find out what happened.  The lag is due to the time it takes for a signal to get from Mars to Earth.  Mars is about seven light-minutes away, and radio waves can only move at the speed of light.

Everything is looking good.  “Nominal” is the word NASA has been using, and that’s a good thing.  Nothing weird – no wobbles, no sudden unexpected malfunctions, and the some of the course corrections they thought they might have to make weren’t needed.

“It’s definitely the quiet before the storm,” said NASA sciences chief John Grunsfeld. “There’s tremendous anticipation.”

By the time it arrives at Mars, gravity will have accelerated the spacecraft to a whopping 13,200 mph. NASA must then slow it down.

Once it lands, the rover will have its brains completely rewritten by remote control so that it can begin its mission: the study of our planetary neighbor, and the quest for signs of life there.

“Curiosity is the culmination of a decade of exploration. We can now begin to move toward finding the fingerprints of life on Mars,” said Scott Hubbard, a Stanford University consulting professor of aeronautics and astronautics. The space agency said Curiosity remains in good health, and was steering so smoothly between planets that a planned minor course correction Saturday wasn’t necessary. And with the gravitational pull of Mars already tugging on the space ship, arrival is being closely monitored by the watchful eyes of mission control. ‘We can now begin to move toward finding the fingerprints of life on Mars.’

– Scott Hubbard, Stanford University professor of aeronautics

“After flying more than eight months and 350 million miles since launch, the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft is now right on target to fly through the eye of the needle that is our target at the top of the Mars atmosphere,” said Mission Manager Arthur Amador of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

In keeping with a decades-old tradition, peanuts will be passed around the mission control room at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory for good luck. The space agency said it was optimistic that everything would go according to plan.

A Twitter feed for the rover itself happily chirped Saturday evening, equally optimistic of its imminent arrival at Mars.

“Right now, I’m closer to Mars than the moon is to Earth,” the robot craft wrote.

The distance between the planets remains a stubborn challenge to mission control; due to the signal time lag between Mars and Earth (it takes about 14 minutes for a signal to be sent to Mars and an acknoledgment sent back to Earth at its current distance), Curiosity will execute the landing autonomously, following the half a million lines of computer code designed by NASA scientists.

Curiosity will not be communicating directly with Earth as it lands, because Earth will set beneath the Martian horizon from Curiosity’s perspective about two minutes before the landing.

The first Mars pictures expected from Curiosity are reduced-resolution fisheye black-and-white images received either in the first few minutes after touchdown or more than two hours later. Higher resolution and color images from other cameras could come later in the first week. Plans call for Curiosity to deploy a directional antenna on the first day after landing and raise the camera mast on the second day.

Biting your nails yet?  You can bet the men and women at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are.

– 3o –


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