Was Mars ever capable of supporting life? That's the question NASA hopes to answer at approximately 1:31 AM Eastern Daylight Time on Monday, August 6, 2012, with its latest Mars rover, Curiosity.Update on August 6, 2012: Check out the Curiosity rover's first photos from Mars.
After eight-and-a-half months in space, Curiosity will touch down on Mars within Gale Crater, which is 96 miles wide and contains a 3 mile high mountain at its center. This landing is being referred to as "Seven Minutes of Terror" by NASA engineers, because it is being done without monitoring or assistance from Earth due to the 14 minute communications delay from Mars to Earth. Watch this five-minute NASA video, which depicts what will happen during the most complex landing ever attempted by a spacecraft.
Stats about this science lab on wheels
Curiosity is not just another Mars rover, though; it has some impressive stats. Weighing in at about one ton and sporting a six-wheel-drive conveyance system, Curiosity is a nuclear-powered science lab on wheels--it's a Mars Science Laboratory.
Curiosity rover (Image courtesy NASA)
The rover is the smallest part of an impressive space and landing vessel. Like the previous rovers, Curiosity will have an upright mast, standing about six feet above the surface, containing the most advanced camera (stereoscopic and color) ever sent to Mars; it will take still photographs and video. The rover's arm will collect samples of the Martian soil, which will be analyzed onboard by a gas chromatograph, a mass spectrometer, a laser spectrometer, an x-ray diffraction and fluorescence instrument, and an x-ray spectrometer. The arm also contains a camera that is designed to be able to see details in the samples gathered as small as a human hair. In addition, the arm contains a laser that will be used to blast away thin layers of material so that lower layers can be analyzed.
What is Curiosity trying to do with all this equipment? Simply put, find evidence that Mars once had life. Many of the onboard instruments are designed to detect organic compounds and others are designed to detect evidence of water ice. Because Gale Crater shows signs of erosion, it is firmly believed that water once existed in this crater and might have existed long enough to support life. NASA has an excellent video on Curiosity's mission:
How to watch Curiosity land on Mars
If you're in New York City this Sunday night, you have what might be the best show of all for this epic event. NASA's broadcast of Curiosity's landing is being displayed on Times Square's giant LED screen.
On the west coast of the United States, head on over to Planetfest 2012 in Pasadena, CA or look for a Planetfest event in your area. If there isn't a Planetfest near you, look at NASA's map of Landing Parties (no, not the Star Trek kind) or the JPL listing by country and state.
If all else fails and you can't find a live event to watch the landing (or don't want to leave your house in the middle of the night), NASA will be broadcasting live on the Internet on NASA TV and Ustream (in HD or with commentary), and SETI is hosting a Google+ hangout. NASA will also make a number of pre- and post-landing broadcasts available on NASA TV this weekend and through Thursday or Friday following the landing.
Curiosity image galleries
Check out my TechRepublic gallery Curiosity Mars rover's landing plan. It features NASA images of Curiosity, the rover's landing site, and maps of the landing area, as well as a graphic of one of Curiosity's tasks.
Gale Crater, Mars (Image courtesy NASA)
Also, take a look at the CNET News gallery, Stark Mars terrain awaits Curiosity.
Here are links to more information about Curiosity, and Geekend posts and galleries about Mars:
- JPL Curiosity Mission Page
- NASA Mars Science Laboratory Mission Page
- Comedian Stephen Colbert Talks with NASA's John Grunsfeld About Curiosity Rover Landing
- Curiosity Rover Twitter feed
- Curiosity rover drives $2.5B make-or-break Mars mission (CNET News)
- How NASA tests an against-all-odds Mars rover landing (CNET News)
- It's a twister - and other amazing photos from Mars (TechRepublic)
- Video: Everything I know about Mars I learned from pop culture (TechRepublic)
- Is death on Mars a fair trade-off to get life on Mars? (TechRepublic)
Note: TechRepublic and CNET are CBS Interactive brands.