Tonight at 10:31pm Pacific time, NASA will attempt to land the largest, most powerful, and most complicated instrument ever to set wheels on the surface of Mars. Curiosity (aka Mars Science Laboratory), which weighs about as much as a Mini Cooper and has the wheel base of a Hummer H2, will be on Mars tonight. Whether it lands safely or leaves a Hummer-sized crater remains to be seen.
Seven Minutes of Terror
The journey from the top of Mars’ atmosphere to its surface takes about 7 minutes. In those seven minutes, Curiosity has to slow from 13,000 MPH to 0 while performing a sequence of perfectly choreographed maneuvers that must be completely automated with no help from Earth. Because Mars is so far from Earth, it takes 14 minutes for a signal from the rover to reach us here at home. That means that, by the time NASA gets word from Curiosity, she will have been on the surface — be it alive or dead — for at least seven minutes. It’s worth noting that NASA will receive a message from Mars faster than NBC can send a signal from London to Los Angeles.
Curiosity’s 2-Year Mission
While a bit shorter than the Enterprise, Curiosity’s prime mission will last 2 years, the longest prime mission time set for any Mars rover to date. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory explains,
The landing will end a 36-week flight from Earth and begin at two-year prime mission on Mars. Researchers will use Curiosity’s 10 science instruments to investigate whether Martian environmental conditions have ever been favorable for microbial life.
The rover is set to land in Gale Crater, a location chosen for its interesting geology, which will hopefully unveil information about Mars that dates back well into the planet’s humble planetary beginnings.
Animation showing how Curiosity will communicate with Earth during its landing sequence
Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity