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NASA rover Curiosity on course for Sunday night landing on Mars

August 5, 2012 | 11:36 am

With Curiosity still on a near-perfect course for a Sunday night landing on Mars, scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge said Sunday morning that they had passed up a final opportunity to correct the spacecraft’s trajectory.

Curiosity was “very healthy,” said mission manager Brian Portock.

“In cellphone-speak, we have a full set of ‘bars,’” Portock said. “The flight team is feeling really good about the spacecraft.”

PHOTOS: Preparing for Martian landing

The craft was winging its way toward Mars at more than 8,000 mph, expected to land at 10:31 p.m. PDT.

“Tonight’s it — the Super Bowl of planetary exploration,” said Doug McCuistion, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. “We score and we win — or we don’t score and we don’t win.”

“If we succeed it will be one of the greatest feats in planetary exploration — ever,” McCuistion said. “The science at Mars is crucial to key questions in science: Are we alone?”

Scientists have one more chance this afternoon to give Curiosity a more precise understanding of where it is, but said the craft’s course was solid enough that they would likely pass up that opportunity as well.

“The team is ready. The spacecraft is ready. It’s to the fates,” said Adam Steltzner, a leader of the entry, descent and landing team. “We are rationally confident and emotionally terrified.”

PHOTOS: History of Mars exploration

Curiosity is the size of a small car, and is the largest and most advanced machine scientists have ever attempted to send to another planet. The robot is a roving geochemistry laboratory, equipped with a suite of powerful instruments and capable of vaporizing rocks and ingesting Martian soil.

If it succeeds, the $2.5-billion mission is expected to revolutionize scientists’ understanding of Mars by scouring an ancient meteor crater and a mountain for the building blocks of life in an effort to determine whether the planet is or was habitable.

The craft is also expected to pave the way for important next steps in deep-space exploration, including sample return and potential human exploration. President Obama has established a goal of sending astronauts to Mars in the 2030s.

MORE ON THE MISSION TO MARS:

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

— Scott Gold

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