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This is it. After traveling 354 million miles the future of the Mars rover Curiosity will be determined Monday morning when it carries out the riskiest part of the eight-month journey: the landing. NASA has said it is the most challenging landing ever tried, calling it “seven minutes of terror” that, if all goes according to plan, will end with Curiosity being lowered into a massive crater by a cable, reports the Associated Press. Landing is scheduled to take place at 1:31 a.m. Monday, but officials have warned it could take hours, if not days, to determine whether everything went according to plan.
The Washington Post explains that part of the reason why the landing is so dangerous is that the rover, the first full laboratory ever sent to another planet, is so much larger than earlier models. That means the landing has to be tried in a “far more hazardous way” than ever before, which scientists were not able to fully test on Earth. The rover was traveling at around 8,000 mph Saturday, but the gravitational pull from Mars will increase that to 13,200 mph, writes the Los Angeles Times. When the fateful time arrives, the nervous scientists in Pasadena, Calif. will be merely spectators, points out the New York Times, noting there is a 14-minute communications gap between the two planets.
Flight controllers were cautiously optimistic. “We're having a very clean ride right now. It's a little spooky,” said an engineer. Considering tightening budgets for space missions, if Curiosity fails it could be years before NASA is able to try out a similar effort, notes Reuters. If all goes according to plan, the rover, which is equipped with lots of sophisticated instruments, will begin analyzing samples as part of an effort to determine whether Mars ever had conditions suitable for microbial life to evolve.