After eight months traveling millions of miles, NASA’s largest and most complex rover ever will attempt a difficult and complicated Mars landing tonight, August 5.
The landing—or the crash—should be confirmed by about at 10:31 PDT (that’s 1:31 EDT on August 6). Here's what you may want to know about this venture.
What’s Happening Tonight?
The rover, named “Curiosity,” and its spacecraft will plummet into the Martian atmosphere at 13,000 mph, then use a huge parachute to slow its decent to about 200 mph.
The spacecraft will deploy a kind of hovercraft with retrorockets that will lower Curiosity down to the surface at Gale Crater, then whisk itself away from the rover landing site to crash elsewhere on Mars. Curiosity will unfold itself and begin roving on the surface of Mars to search for evidence that the planet is or ever has been capable of supporting microbial life.
The rover actually is expected to land around 10:17 p.m. PDT, but it takes about 14 minutes for signals to make it from Mars to Earth. For a detailed listing of key technical events tonight, visit SpaceFlight101 (PDF).
If you don’t want to stay up late to learn what happens to Curiosity, you can still see a good show just by looking into the sky after sunset tonight. If you have a clear sky you should be able to see a meet-up in the night sky between Mars, Saturn, and the bright star Spica. According to NASA, the “Martian Triangle” should be visible from almost everywhere. Look for it in the western sky.
What’s The Big Deal?
For one thing, Curiosity is a $2.5 billion endeavor that, if successful, will expand the entirety of human knowledge.
Also, what the rover finds will affect future Mars missions. If it lands successfully, more are sure to follow, including those from the private sector. SpaceX founder Elon Musk, for example, has the red planet in his sights and said in March that his company wants to establish a long-term colony there.
How Can I Watch?
Late on August 5 and early on August 6 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. You may also find a watch party near you by consulting NASA's list of events.
Also, NASA will be streaming live to NASA TV and Ustream starting at 9 p.m. Pacific Time (that's midnight Eastern Time and 4 a.m. Greenwich Mean Time). You can also follow along on Twitter and Facebook.
What if It Finds Evidence of Life?
Any organic matter the rover finds could have biological origins or chemical ones. But if it detects complex organic structures it would be strong evidence of ancient life on Mars.
If life did ever exist on Mars, some scientists think life on Earth might be related. Calling it “panspermia,” they say one of the two planets could have seeded life on the other. For example, spores contained in one of hundreds of thousands of Martian meteorites that have fallen to the Earth may have sprouted into life long ago. On the other hand, Martian microbes the rover finds could have come from Earth, although it’s a less likely scenario.
Ultimately, however, any relational link between life on the two planets could be confirmed if Martian life is coded in DNA, as ours is, although because DNA breaks down over time the Curiosity would need to find newer or alive microbes for scientists to make such a determination.
One thing is certain: Finding microbial life on Mars would elicit great debates regarding the origins of life.
What if it crashes?
If Curiosity doesn’t make it to the surface of the red planet intact, the future of NASA's Mars program could be in danger.
"It could take the entire Mars program down with it," Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, which pushes for human settlement of the Red Planet, told SPACE.com. "It is victory or death."
President Obama's 2013 federal budget request reduces NASA's planetary science program funding from $1.5 billion to $1.2 billion. Much of the lost money will come out of the Mars program, in spite of several successes it has achieved within the last decade, such as its finding of water near the planet’s north pole in 2008.
Even so, the White House plans to cut NASA's Mars funding significantly in the next few years and NASA has had high hopes that Curiosity’s success would rejuvenate interest in the program and elicit a funding comeback.
Lots of people will be watching the landing closely tonight with the hope that a successful landing will usher in a new era of scientific discovery as well as—someday—manned missions to Mars.