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Mars rover Curiosity clears hurdle as landing approaches

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With the scheduled landing of the Mars rover Curiosity only hours away, officials said one potential problem facing the mission appears to have gone away.

Scientists reported Saturday that a dust storm that had formed south of the planned landing site, which could have disrupted the accuracy of the landing, appeared to be dissipating. The storm was turning into a “fairly harmless cloud of dust,” said Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity’s deputy project scientist.

The NASA rover, which has been cruising toward Mars for eight months, started a sequence of automated steps about 3 p.m. PDT in anticipation of its scheduled Sunday night landing.

PHOTOS: Preparing for Martian landing

The first two steps were to turn on Curiosity's navigation system, using the sun and stars to orient itself, and to begin warming up the spacecraft's powerful rocket engines, which will be used during the landing sequence.

"This makes it very real," said Ravi Prakash, an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge and a member of the entry, descent and landing team. "There's nothing that's going to stop us from landing now. We have to give it the best shot that we can, and that's what we're working toward in the next two days."

The spacecraft will take many more steps to ready itself for landing. About five hours before landing, for instance, Curiosity will activate a suite of temperature and pressure sensors on the spacecraft's heat shield.

PHOTOS: History of Mars exploration

Earlier Saturday, scientists said that Curiosity had gotten close enough to Mars — less than 3 million miles — that Mars' gravity had begun to pull on the spacecraft and increase its speed.

The spacecraft had traveled 350 million miles and was cruising at roughly 8,000 mph Saturday. Mars’ gravitational pull will increase that speed to roughly 13,200 mph by the time the craft strikes the Martian atmosphere, about seven minutes before it lands.

In addition, satellites had detected the presence of water ice clouds near the landing site — a good development, because those clouds are typically associated with a cold atmosphere containing little dust.

INTERACTIVE: Curiosity, from liftoff to landing

“Mars appears to be cooperating nicely,” Vasavada said.

At a briefing Saturday, scientists said that Curiosity was on a solid trajectory and was behaving as planned — maintaining, for instance, a strong communication link and sending a consistent stream of data back home.

Curiosity, a six-wheeled, roving geochemistry laboratory and the largest robot scientists have ever attempted to deposit on another planet, is expected to touch down on Mars at 10:31 PDT Sunday.

MORE ON THE MISSION TO MARS:

Here's the man responsible for messing up the Mars mission

— Scott Gold

Photo: This Aug. 4 handout photo shows the crew at the Mission Support Area at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Credit: NASA / JPL

 
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