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'Seven minutes of terror': Mars rover landing will be a nail-biter

Scientists are utilizing a complicated new 'sky crane' technique for landing the car-sized Curiosity rover on Mars Monday. The hope is that the good luck NASA has had with Mars missions will hold up.  

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NASA's Hubble Space Telescope snapped this shot of Mars on Aug. 26, 2003, when the Red Planet was 34.7 million miles from Earth. The picture was taken just 11 hours before Mars made its closest approach to us in 60,000 years.

NASA/ESA

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NASA calls it "seven minutes of terror" – the final minutes that the one-ton Mars rover Curiosity must survive to cap an eight-month interplanetary cruise.

Using a unique "sky crane" approach, a rocket-powered descent module will gently ease a tethered Curiosity onto the red planet's surface, then release the rover and fly off to crash at a safe distance from the landing site.

It's a method that will present more than its share of nail-biting moments. Indeed, at press briefings and in messages to their staffs, NASA managers have tried to underscore just how risky this venture is.

While using any new technology for the first time on such a high-profile space mission carries risks of failure, if history is any guide, the odds for success may be somewhat higher than NASA publicly acknowledges.

Slated to arrive on the surface of Mars at 1:31 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time Monday, the rover is the most expensive, scientifically ambitious robotic craft humans have ever tried to place on another planet.

The goal of the $2.5-billion mission is to determine if Gale Crater and its central summit, informally known as Mt. Sharp, once presented an environment that at least simple forms of life could have called home.

Humanity's track record for Mars missions isn't stellar, James Green, NASA director of planetary science, suggested in an email posted July 29 on the website planetarynews.com.

Since 1960, when the first attempt at a Mars flyby was made by the Soviet Union, "the historical success rate at Mars is only 40 percent," he wrote.

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