PASADENA, Calif. The most high-tech rover NASA has ever designed neared arrival at Mars on Sunday to attempt an acrobatic landing on the planets surface.
The Curiosity rover was poised to hit the top of the Martian atmosphere at 13,000 mph. If all goes according to script, it will be slowly lowered into a massive crater by cables in the final few seconds.
With Curiosity on autopilot, engineers became spectators, anxiously waiting to see if Curiosity executes the routine as planned.
Im not the nervous type, but I havent been sleeping all that well the last week or so even though Im still very confident, said engineer Steven Lee.
NASA was ready for the Super Bowl of planetary exploration, said Doug McCuistion, head of the Mars exploration program at NASA headquarters.
We score and win or we dont score and we dont win, said McCuistion.
Like footballs Super Bowl, there were celebrities on hand. More than a dozen were invited to watch the landing at NASAs Jet Propulsion Laboratory, including will.i.am, Wil Wheaton, Seth Green, Morgan Freeman and Alex Trebek.
If all goes well, mission control at the JPL should hear a signal at late Sunday. The space agency warned that confirmation could take longer if an orbiting spacecraft thats supposed to listen for Curiosity during the descent is not in the right place.
Curiositys trajectory was so accurate that engineers decided to wave off a last chance to tweak its position before atmosphere entry.
Were ready to head in, said mission manager Brian Portock.
Not ones to tempt fate, flight controllers planned to break out the good luck peanuts before Curiosity takes the plunge as part of a long-running tradition.
Its definitely the quiet before the storm, said NASA sciences chief John Grunsfeld. Theres tremendous anticipation.
One scientist who can relate to the building anxiety is Cornell University planetary scientist Steve Squyres, who headed NASAs last successful rover mission in 2004.
This time around, Squyres has a supporting role and planned to view the landing with other researchers in the science bullpen.
Landing on Mars is always a nerve-racking thing. Youre never going to get relaxed about something like landing a spacecraft on Mars, said Squyres.
Sundays touchdown attempt was especially intense because NASA is testing a brand new landing technique. Because of the communication delay between Mars and Earth, Curiosity will be on autopilot. Theres also extra pressure because budget woes have forced NASA to rejigger its Mars exploration roadmap.