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NASA rover Curiosity closing in on Mars

August 4, 2012 | 11:48 am

The NASA rover Curiosity is closing in fast and is now less than 3 million miles from Mars – close enough that Mars’ gravity is beginning to pull on the spacecraft and increase its speed, officials said Saturday at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge.

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 p.m. PDT.

More than eight months after launch, 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.

PHOTOS: A rover called Curiosity

Also Saturday, scientists reported that a dust storm that had formed south of the planned landing site and 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.

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

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

INTERACTIVE: From liftoff to landing

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.

Scientists were happy enough with Curiosity’s path that they passed on a chance Friday night to conduct a corrective “burn.”

“We’re now right on target to fly through the eye of the needle,” said Arthur Amador, Curiosity’s mission manager.


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-- Scott Gold at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge