NASA's Curiosity rover to land on Mars tonight
Pasadena, Calif.: NASA's Mars rover Curiosity Lander will finally land on after cruising across 350 million miles of interplanetary space for 8-1/2 months and this event is all over the news. Mars is practically on the far side of the Sun from Earth, 154 million miles (1.7 astronomical units) away.
Touchdown is scheduled for 10:31 pm Sunday Pacific time (1:31 am EDT on Monday/0531 GMT on Monday). The complicated landing for the Curiosity rover is so risky that it has been described as 'seven minutes of terror' — the time it takes to go from 13,000 mph (20,920 kph) to a complete stop.
The Mars rover Curiosity is the most sophisticated mobile science lab ever sent to another world, hurtled closer to the Red Planet on Saturday. The rover is encased in a capsule-like shell, the spacecraft is flying on automatic pilot, guided by a computer packed with pre-programmed instructions.
"We're on target to fly through the eye of the needle," Arthur Amador, the Mars Science Laboratory mission manager, told reporters at a briefing about 36 hours before landing time.
However, scientists won't be able to know for 14 minutes whether the Curiosity has landed safely or not, as radio signals from Mars travel to Earth. Mission control engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles acknowledge that delivering the one-ton, six-wheeled, nuclear-powered rover in one piece is a highly risky proposition under the best of circumstances.
If succeeded, a video camera aboard the rover will captured the most dramatic minutes for the first filming of a landing on another planet.
If no landing signal comes, it could take hours or even days for scientists to learn if radio communications with the rover were merely disrupted or that it crashed or burned up during landing.
On Sunday night, mission controllers will activate the spacecraft's backup computer, ensuring that it will assume onboard command of the vessel during entry into the Martian atmosphere and its tricky descent to the surface.
"This is the most challenging landing we've ever attempted," said Doug McCuistion, NASA's Mars Exploration Program director.