It will be a "nail-biting’’ New Year’s celebration of sorts tonight for Arizona State University’s space scientists.
They’re scheduled to gather about 8 p.m. at ASU’s Mars Space Flight Facility in Tempe and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in California to count down the arrival of a land-rover spacecraft on the Red Planet.
The golf cart-size robotic vehicle represents the results of decades of scientific research, more than $600 million in mission development costs and the career goals of a team of ASU geologists, chemists, biologists and engineers.
"It’s going to be a nailbiting time,’’ with a mix of exhilaration and anxiety, said geologist Ron Greeley, one of the chief scientists for Mars orbiter and rover projects.
ASU’s Mars center designed and built some of the key sensing devices on the rover called Spirit, set to land about 9:35 p.m., as well as the Opportunity rover, scheduled for a Jan. 24 landing.
Those instruments are expected to reveal the most precise information ever on the mineralogy, chemical composition and geologic history of another planet.
The results might provide answers to the big question of whether Mars might harbor any form of life, or maybe once did in its ancient past, experts said.
The camera- and instrument-laden rovers are designed to spend 90 days analyzing Martian rocks and soil for clues that could reveal whether the Red Planet was ever a warmer, wetter place capable of sustaining life.
If successful, the 384-pound Spirit and its twin would become the fourth and fifth U.S. spacecraft to survive landing on Mars.
If neither survives, they will join the wretched ranks of some 20 other spacecraft from various nations that failed to successfully reach the planet.
ASU’s team has in recent years been one of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s chief partners in missions that have sent probes to orbit Mars.
The landers are the next stage of an increasingly complex and high-risk quest.
There’s anticipation of pioneering achievements but also nervousness about the lurking dangers that could quickly dash such hopes, Greeley said.
"Everything that can be done to make this a success has been done. But that doesn’t mean Mars won’t surprise us again,’’ he said.
The planet has proved to be a rough customer for scientists.
Of the more than 30 missions to Mars, about two-thirds of them have failed, either when crafts crashed or were crippled by malfunctions.
That history sets the stage for high drama today, said ASU geologist Philip Christensen, head of the program that produced the rovers’ imaging technology.
He and his colleagues will be tracking the lander via radio signals.
First, they’ll listen for signs that Spirit’s heat shields hold up as it plummets into Mars’ atmosphere at more than 12,000 mph.
Retro rockets are to fire to slow its descent as it nears the surface. Other systems must engage in time to cushion the rover.
"It’s going to land pretty hard. It’s going to be popping parachutes and air bags and a lot of bouncing around. . . . We’ll have a lot of suspense,’’ Christensen said.
If all goes well, there’s a fair chance the rover’s cameras can be activated not long after landing and begin transmitting the first pictures from the touch-down site, allowing scientists to plot a safe path for its movement over the terrain.
In coming months, they hope to guide the rovers to sites where the crafts can provide data critical to planning manned trips to Mars, said Jack Farmer, a leading astrobiologist for the rover missions.
Farmer and other ASU researchers will spend much of the early part of the year at NASA’s California facility in an intense effort to fulfill the project’s ground-breaking potential.
"A lot of our life’s work has been leading up to this mission,’’ he said.
Much of what they learn is to be put to use almost immediately in ASU classrooms.
Professors on the mission team are offering a course on the rovers, using data transmitted directly through NASA from Mars to ASU.