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Mars rover 'hardest NASA robotic mission ever attempted,' says NASA (+video)

At 10:30 p.m. PDT on Aug. 5, the one-ton, $2.5 billion Curiosity rover is scheduled to touch down on Mars, in what experts are calling a risky landing.

This 11-minute animation depicts key events of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, which will launch in late 2011 and land a rover, Curiosity, on Mars in August 2012.
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NASA's newest Mars rover is less than a week away from its high-stakes landing on the surface of the Red Planet.

The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity rover is scheduled to touch down on Mars at 10:30 p.m. PDT on Aug. 5 (1:30 a.m. Aug. 6 EDT, 0530 GMT). The car-size robotic explorer is designed to investigate whether Mars is, or ever was, capable of hosting microbial life.

With six days to go until Curiosity arrives at the Red Planet, project managers are bracing themselves for what NASA calls the riskiest part of the mission: the rover's harrowing descent through the Martian atmosphere to the ground.

John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, took part in a news briefing on July 16 to discuss the MSL mission. He called Curiosity's landing "risky business."

"The Curiosity landing is the hardest NASA robotic mission ever attempted in the history of exploration of Mars, or any of our robot exploration," Grunsfeld said.

When Curiosity reaches Mars, the 1-ton rover will be lowered to the surface by a rocket-powered sky crane. This complex contraption will help slow the spacecraft's speed from roughly 13,200 mph (about 21,250 kilometers per hour) to zero in only seven minutes. This sequence of events is officially known as entry, descent and landing, but its nail-biting nature has earned it the nickname "seven minutes of terror."

This type of unprecedented landing was selected because Curiosity is much larger than any previous rover that has been sent to the Red Planet. Curiosity's sheer size ruled out the possibility of orchestrating an airbag-assisted landing.

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