by Jay R. Thompson Thursday, August 2, 2012
Sunday night will bring excitement to households around the world, not only because of the Olympics (and the GEOlympics), but also because the Mars Science Laboratory, also known as the Curiosity rover, will touch down on the Red Planet.
As of Wednesday, Aug. 1, Curiosity was on its own, operating autonomously. The mission team here on Earth has adjusted the spacecraft’s trajectory four times and, if another adjustment is needed, they might put a thumb on the spacecraft’s steering wheel briefly Friday. All seems well so far, and the landing is expected to be spectacular. Even more spectacular would be if the rover found signs of past life on Mars, the search for which is the rover’s mission, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
It’s been a long haul — 567 million kilometers in a little over eight months — but if things continue as planned, the largest and most well-equipped rover ever sent to Mars will set its six wheels on Martian soil at 1:31 a.m. EDT Sunday night (it actually lands earlier, but the signal takes 13.8 minutes to reach Earth). The one-ton rover is 3 meters long, 1.8 meters wide, and 2.1 meters tall, with a 2.1-meter-long arm and 0.5-meter-diameter tires. NASA said it hopes to share the first images from this Martian dune-buggy an hour or so after landing, but they’re not making promises.
For readers on the East Coast of the U.S. eager for good news from NASA, it makes for a late night. But if you live on the West Coast, it’ll only be 10:31 p.m. You’re even luckier if you live in Europe or Asia because then it might just be breakfast or dinner time, respectively, when the spacecraft lands on Mars. But where to watch?
If you live in New York City, you can just head on down to Times Square. No joke. NASA announced July 31 that the Toshiba Vision screen in Times Square will provide live video coverage from 11:30 p.m. EDT through 4 a.m. EDT. If you live in Chicago, head to the Adler Planetarium, which will be open between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m., for a free event to celebrate the landing. In Los Angeles, go to the Griffith Observatory, which will remain open until midnight for the special event. To find a special event in your state, check out the mission’s website.
We reached out to CNN, MSNBC, CBS and ABC to see if they plan to broadcast any coverage of the landing, but we hadn't heard back by the time of this post. Considering the gravity of the event (pun intended), as well as people gathering in Times Square to watch, we can hope that at least one major television network will provide video and commentary from New York City as well as from the mission operations center.
If you don’t have a television or can't find the landing, you can turn to NASA TV.
Until then, and probably after, you can get updates about Curiosity from the rover’s Facebook page and on Twitter. By the way, don’t be surprised when the spacecraft posts status updates in first-person, such as: “Cruise Control: I'm continuing to fly according to my autonomous entry, descent and landing software. Countdown to Mars: 4 days!”
If you want more details, you should visit NASA’s official website for the mission. The page features the latest news from the mission, along with a countdown to landing.
If you need your fix of Martian action immediately, you should watch NASA’s now-famous video “Seven Minutes of Terror," which features a computer-animation (with sound effects!) of the spacecraft’s descent to the surface of Mars. And if you have an XBox, download NASA's free videogame and see if you can land the rover safely.
And on Friday, be sure to tune into NASA’s multi-center social media event on Friday. The simulcast event will connect seven NASA centers, including NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., the mission control epicenter for the Mars Science Laboratory mission.
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