This is either going to be the greatest weekend ever or the worst weekend ever.
Late on Sunday night, Curiosity — the next great Mars rover, one ton of scientific-instrument-packin’ laser-shootin’ Mars-rollin’ machine — will, one way or another, arrive at the surface of Mars. If everything goes well, it’ll be on its wheels and ready to roll. If one thing goes wrong, it’ll be just one more crater, and the end of many peoples’ careers.
I wrote a lengthy set of blogs explaining what exactly has to happen right over the span of seven terrifying minutes for Curiosity to enter Mars’ atmosphere, descend by parachute and then retrorockets, and finally skycrane to a landing. For the TL;DR, Let William Shatner explain it all to you.
I will be at JPL, Tweeting away (@elakdawalla) and probably having an anxiety attack, occasionally updating my blog. The confirmation of a landing — or not — should reach Earth at about 10:31 p.m. Pasadena time (having spent 14 minutes traveling across the space separating Earth and Mars). For those of you not lucky enough to be at JPL, you can follow everything at a number of Web feeds, including NASA TV, or JPL’s Ustream, or The Planetary Society’s PlanetFest webstream. (Planetfest is a physical event that you can attend in Pasadena, California tomorrow and Sunday).
Between now and then, on Saturday night, August 4, I hope that any of you in Southern California will come to our MARS PARTY!! In the spirit of such geektastic affairs as W00tstock and LeetUp, the Mars Party will feature DJ’s, drinks, dancing; rovers, spaceships, and rocket scientists; lots of swag; free T-shirts; Bill Nye the Science Guy; me; and an electric LED floating octopus light show of some kind. Tickets here! Children invited! (Parental guidance suggested.)
Curiosity is an enormous rover whose science mission involves figuring out if Mars was ever hospitable to life — at least to our kind of life. In the short term, after landing, the most exciting things to look forward to are the first pictures from its landing site. All previous Mars missions have had to land in extremely flat (and therefore visually a bit dull) landscapes. Curiosity’s landing next to a mountain, so the view will be breathtaking. And then — after a few months of instrument checkouts and traversing the Martian plains to its base — the rover will climb that mountain! I recently made two videos explaining where all its cameras and other instruments are and describing what they do.
You’ll be able to follow it every step of the way, because as with the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, JPL is going to publish the images returned from the spacecraft on their website very soon after they receive those pictures on Earth. Curiosity’s science cameras have color HD capability and can capture video at 4.5 frames per second. There’s even a camera called MARDI that will take an HD movie of the descent, watching the ground rise up toward the rover. It’s going to be spectacular.
If it works. *gulp*