In hours, NASA's $2.5 billion mission to Mars will finally touch down on the red planet: The Mars Science Laboratory, which includes the Curiosity rover, which was launched on November 26, 2011, will land on Mars at 1:31 a.m EDT (10:31 p.m. PDT). And the landing will be broadcast in Times Square, starting at 11:30 p.m. until 4 a.m. tomorrow.
However, NASA is bracing itself for "7 Minutes of Terror" before the MSL and rover land, as they fall through Mars' atmosphere. NASA put together a suspenseful video and here are some cool infographics explaining it all:
And Nature explains:
If Curiosity lands successfully in Gale Crater, it will eventually trundle over to a 5.5-kilometre-tall stack of layered deposits ringed by water-altered minerals. Ascending the mound, the rover will chart hundreds of millions of years of geology and help researchers to deduce whether life could ever have existed on Mars.
But first it has to arrive. On its way down, the spacecraft will fire 76 charges, adopt 6 configurations and slow from 6 kilometres per second to a standstill. It will be the first craft since the Apollo Moon programme of the 1960s and 1970s to use a guided-entry system, and the final leg of the descent will mark the first use of a ‘sky crane’. At 900 kilograms, Curiosity is too heavy to land in airbags like earlier rovers, and retrorockets like those used in the Viking Mars landings of the 1970s would kick up damaging dust. Instead, a hovering platform will unspool the rover. “All sorts of things can go wrong,” said NASA administrator Charles Bolden at a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council on 25 July. “That’s what makes it a real nail-biter.”
Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) engineers say they believe there's only a 1.7% chance of failure (they've created models for numerous scenarios), one admitted, "Probably the overall biggest risk is our lack of imagination."
Here's what NASA expects when the Curiosity rover lands: "A set of low-resolution gray scale Hazcam images will be acquired within minutes of landing on the surface. Once all of the critical systems have been checked out by the engineering team and the mast is deployed, the rover will image the landing site with higher-resolution cameras." And, of course, you can follow Mars Curiosity on Twitter—14 hours ago, "Right now, I'm closer to Mars than the moon is to Earth. 28 hours to landing!"