Saturday, August 4, 2012

Quick Guide to Watching the Mars Landing of MSL Curiosity Rover August 5th

Artist's conception of Curiosity roving Mars.
I realized this week that the landing of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity Rover was coming up fast, and that I hadn't planned out how I would be watching!  Unacceptable.  So I put together some facts, websites, twitter addresses and such to use to follow the events as they unfolded.  I realized the blog was a good place to put the info, and that others might want a quick guide, too.  So here it is.

Of course, I'm always excited about any spacecraft from anywhere pretty much doing anything.  This mission does have some special significance, however.  I've done plenty of crater research on Mars in the past, and have lots of friends colleagues currently involved in the mission, so it all feels very personal.  I'm wishing the best for my colleagues who have spent years of their lives working on this, as well as those who will spend years analyzing the data afterwards.

Okay, on to the mission.

What's Happening, Anyway?

NASA, in partnership with several space agencies from other countries, is about to land the most most sophisticated rover ever built.  The rover is named Curiosity.  Previous rovers were like slowly moving robotic geologists.  This rover is a full laboratory with a suite of instruments designed to act more like a geochemist.  It will be landing on Mars at Gale crater in a rather spectacular fashion (more on that later.)  Afterwards, it will spend at least two years on the surface roving about and collecting data.

What's All the Excitement About?

The landing is happening very soon!  And it is going to be an interesting process.  If you have not yet seen the animated "7 Minutes of Terror" simulation video, you'll want to watch it.  Go ahead.  I'll wait here.

Seven minutes from atmosphere to surface.
Now you see why some people are pretty excited, and nervous, about this landing.  Mars has proved to be a tough place to visit in the past, but we are starting to get very good at it.  Statistics being what they are, one can accurately say that only about 40 percent of the missions to Mars have succeeded, and only a third of the surface landings.  This is some evidence that landing spacecraft is very difficult.  However, one can also say that of the last five NASA missions to go to Mars, all have succeeded.  Of the last three rovers NASA has sent to Mars, all have succeeded.  We've learned a lot, and in spite of the drama, MSL Curiosity's odds look very good. 

What Should I Do To Get Ready?

First off, you might want to follow a few twitter feeds to be kept up-to-date.  I'm following:

MSL Curiosity @MSL_101
Curiosity Rover @MarsCuriosity
At the Planetary Society I'm following Emily Lakdawalla @elakdawalla and @exploreplanets

If you are a Facebook person, look for

There are a million possible websites to check out, and since this is a quick guide, I'll keep it simple.  The best touchstone as far as I'm concerned is Follow Your Curiosity.  Their front page lists landing times by timezone and additional places to follow/watch.  You can cruise around the site here and learn more about the mission, the instruments, the experiments and all that fun stuff.

If you still have time on your hands, you can watch the video "A Grand Entrance" twice - once with a voice over by Wil Wheaton, and then again by William Shatner, and decide who does it best.

When is the Landing, and How Do I Watch?

Time at landing for JPL is 10:31pm PDT Aug 5th.  If you are in another part of the world, it will be at a different time - either the night of the 5th or the morning of the 6th.  UTC is 05:31 August 6th.  I'm on the east coast, where the landing time will be 1:31 am the morning of the 6th.  Check the Follow Your Curiosity site for more times.

I'm planning to watch from the comfort of home, on my computer - no doubt while tweeting constantly with my friends and colleagues from @grierja.  I'll be on Ustream at - This link will have NASA TV commentary.  The link at /nasajpl2 will be a "clean feed."

You can also check your own TV/cable/satellite situation and see if you get NASA TV on your actual TV.  I never watch TV at all, so I can't really give any advice on that.

If you prefer to be in a group, go ahead and throw a landing party, or attend one that's already been set up.  Check NASA's list of events, or their interactive map.

The party, either at your home or another location, will start well before landing time.  So tune in early!  NASA TV will start broadcasting the lead up to landing two hours before actual landing time (at 8:30pm Pacific and 11:30pm Eastern.)  

What Will I See?

First of all, Mars is 14 light minutes away - the distance it takes light to travel in that amount of time.  This means that there is a time delay of 14 minutes between what is happening on Mars and when we actually get the data about it.  It kinda creeps me out.  By the time we detect the spacecraft hitting the atmosphere, it will already have landed.

So you will not see a "live feed" from Mars of the spacecraft dramatically going through all of its stages and then landing.  To do that, we would need to have sent another spacecraft to follow it like a cameraman.  NASA will be tracking the landing using instruments on the spacecraft that measure acceleration, heat, etc.

So instead, we get true "Reality TV."  We'll be seeing a lot of shots of the control room, with engineers and scientists bent over computers and examining screens on the walls.  We'll probably get some shots of people watching excitedly from other locations.  NASA will probably show video simulations of what they think is happening right now to the spacecraft, showing the heat shield fall away, the parachute deploy, and that sort of thing.  They will tell us what the instruments are telling them.  It will all vacillate between intense and exciting punctuated with minutes of 'it doesn't seem like anything is happening.'  You know, real life :)

Then NASA will announce the landing, and we will all cheer wherever we are!  Then we will get to go to bed.  The NASA folks won't.  They will be on shifts day and night for months and months, having adjusted their schedules to "Sols" - Martian days, not Earth days.

I hope you'll join me, and lots of other space nuts and generally interested citizens!  Feel free to comment here on your plans, what sites you plan to check out, or if you have a question or two.  I'll try to get an answer up promptly :)

Pax, All.

Image Credits:  All images are from, thanks to NASA and JPL, and our tax dollars at work.


Amy said...

I watched the vid with both Shat and Wheaton and the Shat winds hands down. TheShat4evah

JA Grier (ee/em/eir) said...

Update - MSL is on the ground on Mars, flawless landing. Wow. Hope you caught the excitement on the ustream feeds. Again, just wow.