Mars rover lands in your living room


Hey kids! It’s time to gather around the laptop and do some real-live space exploring.

Tonight, when Mars rover Curiosity touches down on the Red Planet, you can have a front-row seat, thanks to NASA and the Exploratorium.

Absolutely a required visit for any kid within a day’s drive of San Francisco, The Exploratorium is bringing us a live web video stream of history (hopefully) being made when Curiosity touches down on the harsh surface of the Red Planet.

At about 10:30 p.m. PDT, the SUV-sized Curiosity will swoop out of the Martian sky, using a new, innovative landing procedure to plop itself down beside a mountain — informally known as Mount Sharp — inside a crater.

Project scientist John Grotzinger of Cal Tech is pumped about the landing site:

“We have a great landing site that was a strong science contender for earlier missions, but was not permitted for engineering constraints because no earlier landing could be targeted precisely enough to hit a safe area inside Gale Crater.”

A new landing procedure brings a new air of excitement — and potential for failure — to the mission.

The 2,000-pound weight of Curiosity makes a typical Mars airbag-assisted “tumble-down” landing impractical. Instead, a two-stage descent will first use a parachute to reduce its speed. Then, the top portion of the spacecraft will serve as as a sky crane, lowering the rover to the ground using cables.

Sounds complicated.

Even Adam Steltzner of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory can see that:

“We know it looks crazy. It really is the result of careful choices.”

All we at SFBay can say is: Hope it works.

We’ll all be able to find out in real-time as the maneuver unfolds on a special webcast to for space enthusiasts around the world.

The main science objective of Curiosity is to probe for signs of bacterial or other microbial life. The 12-mile by 4-mile landing area was selected to study deposits that appear to have been made by water.

Jesse Garnier
Jesse Garnier is the editor and founder of SFBay. A Mission District native, he also teaches journalism as associate professor at San Francisco State University.

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