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.

William Shatner and Wil Wheaton have supplied their voices for two videos discussing the rover and its landing sequence. Take a look and decide which you like better.

William Shatner and the Grand Entrance

Mars Science Laboratory.

Curiosity rover
Image courtesy of 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:

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.

Curiosity is set to touch down in Gale Crater. The black ellipse on the map is its target zone. Gale Crater is 96 miles wide and contains a 3-mile high mountain at its center.
Image courtesy of NASA

Also, take a look at the CNET News gallery, Stark Mars terrain awaits Curiosity.

Additional resources

Here are links to more information about Curiosity, and Geekend posts and galleries about Mars:

Note: TechRepublic and CNET are CBS Interactive brands.