Mars rover: from 13,000 mph to soft landing, with NASA's future in the balance

This artist's concept depicts a sky crane lowering NASA's Curiosity rover onto the Martian surface.

(CBS News) PASADENA, Calif. - NASA scientists will be on pins and needles early Monday morning when they try to land a new rover on Mars -- especially during a stretch called the "seven minutes of terror," when the spacecraft slows from 13,000 mph to what will hopefully be a soft landing.

NASA has a lot riding on the mission. Delivering the most complex -- and expensive -- robot ever sent to Mars depends on a landing like nothing ever attempted before.

As a NASA animation shows, the car-sized, nuclear powered rover named Curiosity will be lowered on cables dangling beneath a rocket propelled platform. The landing team is led by Adam Steltzner.

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"The first time it was offered up, it was called 'rover on a rope,'" Steltzner said. "And the team said 'that's crazy' -- and we put it aside."

Previous rovers sent to Mars bounced onto the planet wrapped in air bags. But Curiosity -- 10 feet long and weighing almost a ton -- is too big.

"Eventually we came upon the sky crane, which we've come to really love quite a bit," Steltzner said. But it's scary as well.

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The scary part begins as soon as the spacecraft enters the Martian atmosphere at 13,000 mph. To slow it down engineers created the largest, strongest supersonic parachute ever made.

At 200 mph, the rocket powered brakes will switch on, and the sky crane will gently lower Curiosity to a pinpoint landing in a Martian crater. But if anything goes wrong, the $2.5-billion mission could be ruined.

Jessica Samuels is on the rover's engineering team.

"We're looking forward to a fantastic landing," she said, but "it will definitely be tense."

Still, there's a "nice, big reward at the end," Samuels said. "We've got this remote sensing mast which will be able to give us the nice 360-degree panoramas. It'll be fantastic. "

The first images could come back to Earth within a half hour of the landing. Then Curiosity will spend two years searching for evidence mars was once capable of supporting life.

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NASA's manned spaceflight missions might be a thing of the past, but Steltzner and Samuels are a new kind of explorers.

"I use robots to extend my and our human reach, but it's absolutely exploration," Steltzner said.

After suffering big budget cuts, NASA is hoping success for Curiosity will reignite enthusiasm for planetary exploration. Failure could leave NASA struggling to find support for other missions to Mars and beyond.

  • John Blackstone
    John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.