We're hours away from humanity's most advanced robot explorer ever landing on another planet. Curiosity, the car-sized, six-wheeled mobile laboratory, will very soon slam into the Martian atmosphere, then be placed on the surface of the planet in a way never before tried. This rover has the potential to change everything we know about Mars, and give us the first real understanding if Mars could have harbored — or could harbor— life. It's a big deal for science, for technology, and for anyone who cares about the really exciting things man is capable of.
I'm here at JPL, and I'll be seeing this happen live— you can watch the live stream as well, but make sure to check here for my trenchant insights. I'll be updating as often as I can.
Curiosity is just now approaching Mars. The rover is, as we speak, folding up its tray table and putting the SpaceMall catalog back in the seatback pocket. Soon it'll turn its phone back on and get ready for landing. And in this case, the landing is a very big deal. It'll be using the Skycrane to land, essentially being lowered down to the surface by a rocket-powered winch. It'd be a big deal if they were doing it in downtown Pasadena, let alone 350 million miles away.
Hopefully very soon we'll have the solar system's most advanced R/C car on Mars!
UPDATE 1 (5:45 PM PST): Things still ramping up here in the press areas. I did manage to sneak into a vent overlooking the control room, and got to see the Top Secret Curiosity Remote control panel. I couldn't photograph it, so I made this quick sketch (Oh, and so you know, I'm trying an experiment, using a Wacom Inkling for the sketches):
Okay, I'm sort of kidding about that.
UPDATE 2 (6:00 PM PST): Here's what the press room looks like here. There's 1:1 scale and some smaller spacecraft models all over the place. There's also a full-sized Galileo probe. It's amazing.
UPDATE 3 (6:15 PM PST): This is fun. NASA is demoing their first foray into the console video game world, a freely-downloadable XBox/Kinect game called Mars Rover Landing. It lets you use Kinect to control the entry-landing procedure and rove about on Mars, and the terrain is made using actual data. It looks pretty fun.
Plus, they have a bunch of web-based 3D rover games online, all of which use actual data from Mars probes to create accurate terrain. They did speed up the rover's motions by 100 times because the actual rover moves pretty slowly. And they know how impatient gamers are.
UPDATE 4 (6:25 PM PST): I saw some folks asking in Kinja what the probability of success of this landing will be. That's an interesting question. Historically, Mars has proven a tricky goal, with two-thirds of missions to Mars failing before reaching their goal. For every Spirit and Opportunity there's been a Beagle 2 or a Mars 2. And then some.
It's hard as hell to do this. That we can do it at all is amazing, and NASA/JPL is by far the best at doing just this. But I'm not really sure of the chances. I'm pretty confident it'll work, but it's a new, untested method. This physics forum seems to be predicting a 60-70% chance of success. That's why this is so exciting.
UPDATE 6 (6:55 PM PST): An observation from the crowded press room: an large groups, reporters don't really smell so great. I'm not saying I'm not contributing, but I thought you had a right to know.
UPDATE 7 (6:57 PM PST): Here's some bald-spot-tastic video of me playing the Kinect Mars Landing game, the atmospheric entry part. It's pretty fun, even if I did end up destroying a very expensive virtual rover. Sorry!
UPDATE 8 (7:17 PM PST): Yes, they're rocket scientists, but they're really just like any of us slobs, deep down:
... and it looks like a press conference may be starting soon.
UPDATE 9 (7:22 PM PST): Will.i.am is here? WTF? Well, great, sounds like he's a big supporter of NASA. Thanks, and this makes up for that absurd DeLorean. Also, astronaut Leland Melvin, who has over 560 hours in space.
UPDATE 10 (7:45 PM PST): Will.i.am sticks to his story that his car isn't a DeLorean. Full video soon.
UPDATE 11 (7:50 PM PST): Uhura's here! Nichelle Nichols said of the test space shuttle, Enterprise, that it's very dear to her heart, because at that time NASA contracted her to help recruit women and minorities for the shuttle program. What a class act.
And, get this— she threatened to sue NASA if they didn't take the highly qualified women and minority candidates, because she so believed in them, and because NASA's reputation at the time was so poor, minority-wise. She spent a whole year helping to recruit new astronauts. NASA stepped up, and got many great new astronauts as a result.
UPDATE 12(8:20 PM PST): Two things. First, a silly sketch that the Inkling didn't quite capture well, and, Alex Trebec is here. Because, why not?
... and here's Alex:
UPDATE 13 (8:36 PM PST): A nice but somewhat confused KTLA reporter just asked me where I thought the live mission control feeds were coming from. They're coming from inside the house, dude. You're here.
UPDATE 14 (8:47 PM PST): This is our first live feed from JPL Mission Control. Or the geekiest mens' choir I've ever seen:
UPDATE 15 (8:50 PM PST): Well, of course Wil Wheaton's here. He's squinty-er in person. Maybe he needs a contact lens prescription update? Someone get on that.
UPDATE 16 (9:06 PM PST) The feed from Mission Control is live. They're pretty much just admitting that they're just watching at this point, since it's automatically finishing its mission now. They're getting good telemetry so far. They're now deciding if there's any commands they need to send to Curiosity now. If not, they're about to turn off the uplink transmitter, to leave bandwidth open for the spacecraft to send data. The transmitter's off, so, as they said, "Curiosity is truly on her own."
UPDATE 17 (9:16 PM PST): They're talking a bit about the technologies that will come from what they've developed for this. I predict the Sky Crane will revolutionize the piano-moving industry.
UPDATE 18 (9:25 PM PST): About an hour away from landing. Well, that plus the 14-minute delay. Also, everything here at JPL has an acronym:
UPDATE 19 (9:30 PM PST): Will we see pictures right after landing? They're saying "maybe." Mars Odyssey, which has been inorbit around Mars for over a decade, is helping with the transmitting of data from Curiosity, will just be coming over the horizon at that moment. So it may barely be in position.
UPDATE 20 (9:40 PM PST): This is an example of how the telemetry/info screens will look. There's raw telemetry data, and gauges for speed, fuel, etc. They confirm Curiosity is now sending back data one-way— no commands to the craft for the next bit. About 45 minutes to landing, which will start with cruise stage separation.
UPDATE 21 (9:42 PM PST): The question no one is asking: what if the Martians get ahold of the rover's advanced scientific and on-board laboratory equipment and make a meth lab? WHAT THEN?
UPDATE 22 (9:47 PM PST): Adam Steltzner, engineer, is on screen now, and he has some serious rockabilly hair. Xeni Jardin is here and just told me he's also into homebrewing beer. That's fun. He's talking about how the irregular weight of the atmospheric entry shell lets them develop some lift to help the entry.
UPDATE 23 (9:53 PM PST): This is great: according to Miles O'Brien, the holes in Curiosity's wheels spell "JPL" in morse code. This is especially great because NASA made JPL take their name off the treads earlier. Ha ha! Showed them!
UPDATE 24 (9:58 PM PST): Everyone here's applauding the cruise team, who got the damn thing there in the first place. Great job, nerds! Seriously, they basically shot an arrow and hit a bullseye 350 million miles away. Incredible.
UPDATE 26 (10:05 PM PST): If you can't find the live feed, here you go:
UPDATE 27 (10:08 PM PST) Looks like Mars Odyssey is in position, so we could get pics right at landing. And, it looks like the cruise stage has jettisoned as well. SO CLOSE.
Also, I heard a reporter say into a camera "...the interesting things Alec Trebec had to say..." That wasn't really true, people.
UPDATE 28 (10:14 PM PST): Correction, cruise stage is about to separate now. They confirmed it was venting fuel by the change in velocity to the craft. Power's cut, it's about to kick away the space-car that got it here. It's gone!
Also, here's how the room looks now. Much more tension than that picture conveys. Whispers, talking.
RCS (steering) thrusters pulsing as things are getting ready to enter.
UPDATE 29 (10:16 PM PST): This is just an interesting note. They have such precision instruments they could tell the heartbeat signal from Curiosity lowered in intensity when the bagel-shaped cruise stage passed in front of it.
UPDATE 30 (10:18 PM PST): Oh boy. Mars is pulling Curiosity closer, faster. She wants a new visitor. Craft is turning, engines and RCS systems all check out.
UPDATE 31 (10:25 PM PST): Signal's dropped—she's entered the atmosphere! We'll have a few minutes of blackout as the hot, ionized gases surround the heat shield. Very soon the real fun begins.
UPDATE 32 (10:27 PM PST) Connection to Odyssey, no data yet. Curiosity's pulling 11 or so Earth Gs. Heading directly for target. All good so far!
UPDATE 33 (10:28 PM PST) The mood in the room is really intense. Vehicle is now about Mach 2, slowing down. Everyone's on the edges of their seats. Parachute's deployed!
UPDATE 34 (10:30 PM PST): Curiosity's decelerating, thrusters back on. 4 km altitude, decending. Backshell of the unit is about to separate. Powered flight!
UPDATE 35 (10:32): Sky crane about to deploy! 40 M altitude 10 msec. SKYCRANE IS STARTED!
UPDATE 36 (10:33 PM PST): LANDED!
THUMBNAIL IMAGES UP! YOU CAN SEE A WHEEL!
UPDATE 36 (10:37 PM PST):That first image thumbnail is 64x64 pixels. Smaller than an icon.
UPDATE 37(10:33 PM PST):Uploading cheering video now. Stay tuned. Images from cams so far are small, dark, and behind dust covers, but they clearly show Curiosity is safely on Mars.
UPDATE 36 (10:41 PM PST):It's like you were there:
I know some scientists are getting laid tonight!
UPDATE 37 (10:45 PM PST):... and here's that first image...
UPDATE 38 (11:00 PM PST): Here's raw images from the front and rear hazard avoidance cameras. Essentially, the rover's working, don't-run-into-stuff eyes. Note where it says "Sol 0" — Sol is the name for a Martian day, and this is the start of it all.
UPDATE 39 (11:07 PM PST): I should mention Gizmodo's Jesus Diaz shared a Snickers with me when it landed. Victory Snickers. Thanks, Jesus!
UPDATE 40 (11:12 PM PST): Eavesdropping on happy engineers and scientists: "Did you pick the right landing spot? From the bingo board?" and "We just won the lottery!"
I'm guessing they had a sort of office pool to pick the final landing spot?
UPDATE 41 (11:12 PM PST):They're bringing the team in now.
UPDATE 42 (11:22 PM PST):They're saying that there's four countries on Mars, and they all got there thanks to the US, and the USA should continue to pursue and lead in space exploration. He's (NASA's presidential advisor) talking about Obama's vision for sending humans to Mars, and how this is a key part of that plan.
UPDATE 43 (11:25 PM PST):"Technical acumen and gutsy determination." They said that. Would make a good motto on a big banner, right?
UPDATE 44 (11:27 PM PST):"If there's anyone questioning America's abilities in space, There's a one-ton automobile sized robot on Mars that should answer any questions." Oh, hell yeah.
UPDATE 45 (11:28 PM PST):Now's the technical team's turn.
UPDATE 46 (11:38 PM PST):This is great— this cost about $7 per American citizen, according to the technical team. So for the price of a fast food hoagie per person, we put this amazing robot on Mars, and who knows what amazing science and revelations will come from that. That's a steal.
UPDATE 47 (11:40 PM PST):It's been on the surface for over an hour. He mentioned the rover was a totally American-built machine. It's nice to see the US (robot) auto industry opening these new export markets.
UPDATE 48 (11:41 PM PST): Richard Cook is up— he's worked on Pathfinder, Spirit, Opportunity and many other missions. He's delighted— he's landed four rovers on Mars! "Pathfinder was great— but we were young and stupid, frankly."
UPDATE 49 (11:47 PM PST):"There is a new picture, of a new place on Mars. For me, that is the big payoff." That's from Adam Steltzner. "Thank you, to the blue shirts!" That means all the scientists and engineers on the team. Oh, and he's expecting a baby in three weeks, so mazel tov!
UPDATE 50 (11:50 PM PST): I've never heard so many people so thankful for "UHF band telemetry."
UPDATE 51 (11:55 PM PST):Conditions at landing were remarkably good. They landed with 140 KG of fuel reserves, which is great. Steltzner owes the tank designer an apology, he says, since he insisted that the tanks get stretched.
"Curiosity is probably the central defining human attribute." — Steltzner is talking about how much he likes the name. There's a secret he promised to tell once Curiosity landed. But he forgot it.
UPDATE 52 (12:01 AM PST):Exact location details are coming soon, but it looks like Curiosity is very close to the base of the mountain, Aeolis Mons (Mount Sharp) inside Gale Crater.
UPDATE 52 (12:01 AM PST): They've been asked how long they expect the rover could survive on Mars. They're first going to go through a detailed check-out period and make sure everything is in good order. The next few days, images should be coming. They expect to spend a few weeks checking things out, then take a short drive. They're going to be patient.
They say "It's like a family vacation, where you're driving to Chicago. But instead of a family, there's 400 scientists who want to stop and look at everything."
The nominal mission length is two years. They said, for the first time, they won't be shocked if it lasts much longer than two years.
UPDATE 53 (12:15 AM PST):Looks like that's it for now. Mars Odyssey will make another pass for data at 12:40 AM PST, so they're going to prepare for that.
What an incredible night. Thanks for joining me here.