Tonight (or tomorrow morning, depending on how you look at it and where you are geographically) Curiosity will be landing on Mars. Its payload has ten times the mass of other rovers sent to the planet, and the goal for the rover is to check if life could or did exist there.
Curiosity, unlike other craft sent up, is capable of testing rock and dirt samples onboard itself; the plutonium power supply is predicted to last for 687 Earth days/one Mars year. Scientific instruments carried by the rover include spectrometers, the Mars Hand Lens Imager (designed to take highly magnified images), the Mast Camera (for taking pictures of the landscape), and the Radiation Assessment Detector.
The news, as you might expect, is causing quite the buzz. The only problem? EDL, or "Entry, Descent, and Landing". It takes several stages for the rover to descend from the atmosphere to the ground and for seven minutes there will be nothing from Curiosity. It may even be longer than that until we on Earth know if it successfully landed (due to the position of two satellites around Mars and the rover's position relative to Earth); if it doesn't reach the planet all in one piece, there will never be a signal at all.
This span of time between entry and landing is (rather aptly) called the 7 Minutes of Terror.
In the words of NASA scientists:
Or if you'd rather not watch a video, this graphic sums up the process:
Detailed animation of what the landing should look like:
If you'd like to find out when the rover will be landing in YOUR timezone, go HERE. You can bet I'll be up in the middle of the night checking the feeds; and speaking of feeds, BoingBoing has a handy list of resources, and I believe that SciShow, MarsCuriosity, and NASA TV will be streaming live about the landing.
Sources of information:
Images found via www.nasa.gov
(If you want more stunning images of Curiosity, check out this photo gallery. )
So, will you be watching?
-----The Golden Eagle