UPDATE: The "seven minutes of terror" ended with unrestrained joy at the Mars Science Lab, as the Curiosity successfully touched on the surface of the planet. The rover sent back the first images verifying that it was on the ground and operational, shortly before 11:00 p.m. Pacific time last night.
I'm safely on the surface of Mars. GALE CRATER I AM IN YOU!!!— Curiosity Rover (@MarsCuriosity) August 6, 2012
Here's how it went down in the control room:
ORIGINAL POST: Provided NASA's 'Curiosity' Mars rover can survive an extremely difficult landing process, the biggest machine we've ever sent to Mars will spend the next two years trying to prove that life once existed on the red planet.
Curiosity's been travelling to Mars for the past eight and a half months. It'll enter the Mars atmosphere around 1:30 a.m. on Monday morning. If you happen to be in Times Square, the landing will be broadcast live from the NASA control room on the Toshiba screen with coverage starting around 11:30 p.m. Sunday night. Which is a really great idea, if Curiosity succeeds at sticking the landing. If it fails then it'll be a spectacular embarrassment for the American space program, and it's the most complicated landing NASA's ever attempted with a Mars rover. From CNet's report:
At an altitude of about 7 miles, and about 7 minutes from the surface, a parachute will deploy to slow the spaceship's cruise stage from 13,200 miles per hour, first to 900 mph and eventually to 180 mph. About a mile above the surface, the rocket-powered landing stage will take over, slowing things further to the walking-speed rate of 2 mph. At the very modest altitude of 66 feet, the rover will finally separate out, and this is where things get most interesting -- Curiosity will be lowered the rest of the way to the surface on a bridle slung on three nylon tethers below the descent stage, with an umbilical providing a power and communication connection.
This is a very dramatic video of NASA scientists explaining what it's going to be like on their end during the landing process (via the Awl):
Done? Great. Yeah, NASA will be completely out of contact with the craft while it lands, and they're relying on the programming to take Curiosity to the ground. If any one thing goes wrong, the $2.5 billion project could go up in smoke, setting back American-led Mars exploration for years.
You can watch the livestream starting around 1:30 a.m. Monday morning here: