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Will NASA's $2.5 billion Mars rover crash on Sunday? (+video)

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover faces a terrifying seven-minute plunge through the Red Planet's atmosphere using a first-of-its-kind landing system involving a supersonic parachute and a 'sky-crane' that will lower the rover to the Martian surface.

By Leonard DavidSpace.com / August 2, 2012

In this artist's rendering provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech, a 'sky crane' lowers the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover onto the surface of Mars. The mobile robot is designed to investigate Mars' past or present ability to sustain microbial life.

JPL-Caltech/NASA/AP

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Day by day, hour by hour, the tension is building. NASA’s mega-mission to Mars and delivery of the Curiosity rover could be a smashing success … or just smashing.

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Team members at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory share the challenges of the Curiosity Mars rover's final minutes to landing on the surface of Mars.

The Mars Science Laboratory’s 1-ton Curiosity rover is factory-equipped with science gear to delve into whether Mars ever was — or might be today — an eco-friendly setting able to sustain microbial life.

A seven-minute, terrorizing plunge through the planet’s atmosphere awaits the spacecraft. MSL’s Curiosity rover is scheduled to touch down at Gale Crater at 10:30 p.m. PDT on Aug. 5 (1:30 a.m. EDT, 0530 GMT, Aug. 6).

At that moment, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is to attempt imaging the final seconds of the robot's death-defying high dive.

"We will indeed be imaging the spot MSL is predicted to be about 60 seconds prior to landing, but the odds of capturing it are estimated at 60 percent," said Alfred McEwen at the University of Arizona in Tucson. He is principal investigator of the orbiter's super-powerful High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE). [Mars Rover Curiosity's Daring Landing in Pictures]

Opening the way forward

"The chips are really down on this one," said Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, which is dedicated to the human exploration and settlement of Mars.

"If it succeeds, it will be far and away the best Mars mission ever. It will make extraordinary scientific discoveries and fire the public's imagination with the vision of exploring another world," he told SPACE.com.

Zubrin said a successful touchdown of the Curiosity rover will display a never-tried-before landing system — a Sky Crane on Mars — capable of delivering 1,980 pounds (900 kilograms) to the Martian surface, which would be enough to accomplish the Mars sample return and other extraordinary missions.

"So it will not only point the way forward, it will open the way forward," Zubrin said.

Do or die

On the other hand, if the Mars rover Curiosity pancakes into the Red Planet, "it could take the entire Mars program down with it," Zubrin said. "With the 2016 and 2018 missions canceled, the program is in chaos, and as a result of government overspending outside of NASA, a drive for fiscal austerity is on the way."

Were the rover to fail, those who wished to get the 2016 and 2018 missions restored or propose new ones in their place wouldn’t stand a chance, Zubrin predicted. The failure, whatever its cause, would be denounced as obvious after the fact.

Zubrin said detractors would argue: "You didn't anticipate that? How could you not have foreseen that? We gave you $2 billion for your mission and you totally blew it. Don’t even think of asking us for any more."

As a bottom line, Zubrin said, "It is victory or death."

Gale Crater chemistry

The MSL mobile robot follows NASA's Phoenix spacecraft, which made a legged landing in May 2008 and investigated the northern polar region of the Red Planet.

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