Mars Mission: "It's the biggest and most exciting we've ever seen."

NASA has a lot riding on a successful Mars landing as it faces deep cuts in its science budget.

Mars Mission: "It's the biggest and most exciting we've ever seen."

CREATED Aug 4, 2012

Reporter: Valerie Cavazos

TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) -- Eight months in space.  354 million miles traveled. 2.5 billion dollars spent. And after all that, it will take only minutes, just minutes to determine elation or disaster.

The Mars rover, Curiosity, will enter the planet's atmosphere at 13,000 miles per hour on Sunday. It's such a dramatic and defining event, that NASA put together a short movie titled "7 Minutes of Terror." That's the amount of time it will take Curiosity to come through the atmosphere and either crash or land safely. It is set to land at 10:31pm.             
Arizona has more than a half-dozen scientists involved in the Mars Science Laboratory -- the mission's official name.

What could possibly go wrong on this latest mission to Mars? That's what Dr. Peter Smith said mission engineers asked themselves -- and tried to answer -- before Curiosity was hurled into space toward the red planet. "So I feel very comfortable that we have a 99 percent chance of a safe landing, but you never know, something could happen, of course," he said. And Smith should know -- because he has been involved in a few Mars missions from the late 90's. He led the last one -- the Phoenix Mars Landing.

KGUN9 reporter Valerie Cavazos asked why he wasn't involved in this mission. He laughed, "I was busy running the Phoenix mission when they put this one together."

Nonetheless, He knows first-hand of the potential risks, especially since Curiosity is both bigger and heavier than any of its predecessors. "This rover is nuclear powered unlike the solar powered previous rovers. It has 12 instruments and it's built to last at least two years or 1 Martian years."

But it has to land first. If and when it does, there's a lot riding on its discoveries as NASA considers cutting space exploration. "And now we are on the verge of really tremendous discovery. This would be the absolute worst time to stop funding space research. We have to get excitement generated again like we did in the 60's."

Smith believes these missions also help spark student's interest in science and space -- in students like 5th grader Michael Hahka. "I think it's going to be great. Tomorrow (Sunday) is going to be exciting."

Scientists will know tomorrow if the risk was worth it. It's a complex landing and NASA will know within minutes if it safely touched ground on the planet. If there's no signal from the rover, it could take hours or days to find out if there's simply a glitch in communication or it crashed or burned during the descent.

A "public" landing party at Sky Bar is scheduled to begin at 8:30pm Sunday evening or you can view the event at home -- live on NASA tv.