If all goes well, at approximately 10:30 p.m. Pacific Time, Sunday, NASA’s Curiosity Lander will touch down on the surface of Mars, ending a 352-million-mile journey that began last November.
That’s a big “if.”
NASA engineers have half-jokingly referred to the landing as the "Seven Minutes of Terror," referring to the time it’ll take Curiosity to decrease its speed from 13,000 miles per hour to zero, while carrying out a breathtakingly complicated landing maneuver to gently deposit Curiosity on the surface of Mars. Watch this video for an explanation:
If the landing succeeds, NASA scientists will have much to celebrate. The nuclear-powered Curiosity is five times as heavy as NASA’s previous landers (hence the elaborate landing gear). And by space standards, the landing will be pinpoint accurate: Curiosity is expected to land somewhere within a 12-mile radius in a deep recess known as Gale crater, roughly the size of the San Francisco Peninsula. That may seem like a lot of wiggle room, but it’s five times as precise as any earlier Mars landings. The crater was chosen because scientists think its geological features may point to the past existence of water.
The mission is expected to last two years, but could go on longer, depending on Curiosity’s life span. The rover can meander up to 12 miles over the Martian surface, with a speed limit of about 300 feet per hour. All the while, Curiosity’s 17 cameras are designed to stream images back to Earth, while its mobile chemistry lab – built by Bay Area engineers at NASA Ames, near Mountain View -- analyzes rock samples, looking for signs of water and life that may once have existed on Mars.
You can follow the landing live here.
And for more background, watch this KQED Quest video on Curiosity.
On Friday, August 3, tune in to KQED's Forum program at 9 AM for live interviews with scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in the lead-up to the landing.
Monday, August 6: Tune in to QUEST at 6:30 and 8:30 AM for an interview with NASA Ames’s David Blake, lead scientist for the CheMin instrument, which will use lasers to analyze Martian rock in the search for evidence of water.
Meanwhile, NPR’s Joe Palca will be providing live coverage of the landing, as well as profiles of scientists who helped design Curiosity.