Seven Minutes of Terror: NASA's Curiosity Rover to Land on Mars This Weekend

This artist's concept features NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a mobile robot for investigating Mars' past or present ability to sustain microbial life. [Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech ]

How do you get the largest Mars rover yet--one the size of a Mini Cooper with six wheels, a host of scientific instruments including a rock-vaporizing laser with a seven-foot range, and a plutonium power supply--from space to the surface of Mars? The last two NASA rovers to land on Mars were the size of shopping carts and used a bouncing airbag system to deliver those rovers safely. This time, with the larger Curiosity, NASA is going sci-fi: It'll use a sky crane to gently land the largest rover yet on Mars.

'Seven Minutes of Terror,' or, Landing on the Martian Surface

If you haven't yet seen the video, check out what's being called the “Seven Minutes of Terror” video that details the engineering challenges involved in getting Curiosity to Mars, including this sky crane system. NASA Planetary Science Directory James Green says this is “the most difficult entry, descent, and landing... of a planetary science rover ever attempted, anywhere” in the solar system.

How do you get from rocketing over 13,000 miles per hour in space to safely roving on the red planet?

After slowing down through the Martian atmosphere with a parachute, the spacecraft with the rover will deploy what's effectively a hovercraft with retrorockets. The hovercraft (has anyone nicknamed it Boba Fett?) will lower Curiosity down to the surface at Gale Crater, then whisk itself away from the rover landing site and to crash elsewhere on Mars. Curiosity will unfold itself, and begin roving on the surface of Mars to learn more about the history of Martian geology, especially the effects of water.

Learn About Mars and Watch the Landing: Events This Weekend

Looking for ways to learn more about the mission, or the red planet in general? Here are a couple events happening around the country on Friday and beyond.

NASA Socials (formerly NASA Tweetups) are happening at seven NASA centers today (Friday, August 3), and are a great way to hear from actual rocket scientists and engineers who've been involved in this mission since its inception. You can watch them live on Ustream, too.

For the actual landing, late Sunday night/Monday morning, you have a host of watching options. If you're in New York City, you can watch the landing in Times Square on a huge LED television screen. NASA also has a directory of watching parties, and will be streaming live to NASA TV and Ustream starting at 9pm Pacific (12am Eastern; 4am GMT). You can also follow along on Twitter and Facebook.

Curious about rocks on Mars? If you're in one of a few cities across the USA, you can see Mars “rocks” made to look like actual Martian boulders. Sponsored by Explore Mars (not NASA), this Martian "rock" campaign hopes to get the country excited about future missions to return Mars rocks to Earth, as well as the possibility that Mars may have hosted life in the past.

NASA Apps and Games for Rocket Science

If the NASA webcasts aren't enough for you, you can get a closer look at the Curiosity rover, as well as other spacecraft NASA launched. Amaze your friends and neighbors with Spacecraft 3D, an app that lets you turn a printed drawing of a spacecraft into a rotatable 3D spacecraft rendering.

NASA's Eyes on the Solar System shows a 3D rendering of the entry, descent, and landing sequences Curiosity's expected to go through on Sunday night. While NASA won't have live TV coverage of the landing from Mars, you can follow along the rendering using Eyes.

Equipped with an Xbox 360? Use your Kinect to try landing a rover on Mars. It's harder than you think!

Want to try your hand at launching your own missions? NASA's Launch Services Program has a game called “Rocket Science 101” where you can learn about different rocket components and what goes into making a launch successful. You can play on iOS, or a Flash version in your browser.

Mars Meets Memes

For those craving more Mars video with a pop culture twist, you can have rover footage narrated by William Shatner. Yes. And here's footage from the Seven Minutes of Terror video set to Carly Rae Jepsen's “Call Me Maybe” from the Curiosity album, of course.

'Our World Will Not Be The Same'

Launched in November of 2011, NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission involving a robotic rover the size of a small car known as Curiosity arrives at the planet Mars on Sunday night (10:31 pm Pacific; 1:31 am Eastern; 5:31 am GMT). [Credit: Cornell University]

Mars Science Laboratory's landing on Mars is the culmination of eight years of planning, designing, building, testing, and launching. Green predicts the landing sequence will be a “white-knuckle experience to say the least.”

What does a successful landing mean? Hopefully more exciting planetary exploration missions, and even ones where robots collect Martian rocks and launch them back to Earth in the coming decades. Regardless of if Curiosity successfully starts roving on Mars come Monday morning, according to Green, “for Curiosity and planetary science on August 6th, one way or another, our world will not be the same.”

Are you excited for the landing? Where will you be watching the entry into Mars’s atmosphere this weekend? Let us know in the comments.

[Planetary Exploration Newsletter, NASA Mars Science Laboratory via Space.com, LiveScience, Caley Burke, and Melissa Rice]

Alessondra Springmann is a master of planetary science and a proponent of solar system exploration. Follow her other writings: @springingly and sondy.com.

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