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Last-minute guide to the Mars landing

NASA

This screenshot from NASA's "Eyes on Mars" interactive simulation shows the Mars Science Laboratory's heat shield flying away from the rest of the spacecraft and its parachute, two and a half minutes before landing. Earth is barely visible as a bright spot in the sky at upper left.


The descent of NASA's Curiosity rover to the surface of Mars is must-see TV on Sunday night, but for the uninitiated, all the geekspeak, apps and animations can be disorienting. Now you can consider yourself initiated: Here's a rundown of the basics for the $2.5 billion mission, plus lots of goodies you can sample online.


Mars Curiosity in 150 words
Eight months after its launch last November, the Mars Science Laboratory will plunge through Mars' atmosphere and deliver the Curiosity rover to the bottom of Gale Crater, for a two-year mission aimed at documenting billions of years' worth of the geological record.  Its prime objective is to study the layers of rock on a 3-mile-high mountain inside the crater, known as Aeolis Mons or Mount Sharp.

Curiosity’s 10 instruments can analyze the chemistry of Mars' rocks, soil and atmosphere in unprecedented detail. It has a drill, a robotic arm with a microscope, a miniaturized laboratory and even a rock-blasting laser. Curiosity isn't designed to detect life directly, but it can identify chemicals hinting at how habitable Mars was in ancient times.

Because the nuclear-powered rover weighs a ton, it has to be lowered to the surface on cables during a set of maneuvers known as the "Seven Minutes of Terror."

Where and when to watch
NASA TV will provide live commentary on the countdown to landing beginning at 11:30 p.m. ET Sunday. We're due to receive the first signals relayed from Curiosity on the surface at 1:31 a.m. ET Monday. The first thumbnail pictures from Curiosity may be available within minutes, or it may take hours for them to come down. You'll know whether the landing is a success or failure by the televised looks on the faces of Curiosity team members in the mission control room at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

NBCNews.com will be streaming NASA's coverage on Sunday night as part of our video offerings. You can also turn to NASA TV for pre-landing coverage all weekend. JPL has set up a "Curiosity Cam" channel on Ustream. And Universe Today has teamed up with Google, the SETI Institute and CosmoQuest to present a webcast starting at 11 p.m. ET Sunday.

There may well be a museum, science center or other space-savvy venue that's planning to broadcast the Mars Curiosity coverage on a big screen in your area. NASA has put together a directory of Mars-related events around the world as well as a clickable map. One of the biggest events is the Planetary Society's Planetfest, which will be having a sold-out Curiosity-watching party at the Paseo Colorado mall in downtown Pasadena.

Mars on your screen
NASA's Mars Curiosity website offers a variety of apps for your desktop and smartphone, including a citizen-science portal called "Be a Martian," and a Java-based interactive display called "Eyes on the Solar System." The "Eyes" dashboard allows you to track the location of the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft in real time, and you can also take a virtual tour to watch the "Seven Minutes of Terror" from all sorts of perspectives. Clickable controls let you stop and start the action, or speed up time to get to the scary parts. One caveat: "Eyes" is a relatively resource-intensive Java program.

If video games are your thing, there's a free Mars Rover Landing game that's been created for Microsoft's Xbox system with Kinect motion sensor. And if you just want to find out what time it is for Curiosity on Mars, there's an app for that — a Java desktop application, that is.

Mars Curiosity has its own Facebook page and a Twitter account (@MarsCuriosity) well worth following. If you tweet about the mission, be sure to use the hashtag #MSL. Flickr fans may well flock to the NASA HQ photostream, while JPL's YouTube channel offers videos galore.

Your guide to the TLAs
This wouldn't be a NASA mission without the TLAs — three-letter acronyms. One acronym that came to light just today is EVR, or "event record," which refers to the data messages that Curiosity will be sending down during EDL. "You can't take the acronym out of the engineer," Steve Sell, a member of JPL's EDL team, joked.

So what's an EDL? This glossary that spells out that term and other TLAs:

  • DAN - Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons, a hydrogen-detecting device on MSL that may find traces of water in ice or minerals
  • DSN - Deep Space Network, the array of radio antennas in California, Australia and Spain receiving signals from interplanetary probes
  • EDL - Entry, descent and landing, also known as the Seven Minutes of Terror.
  • JPL - Jet Propulsion Laboratory
  • MER - Mars Exploration Rovers, also known as Spirit and Opportunity
  • MRO - Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a satellite with a high-resolution camera that can relay signals from MSL and may take its picture on the way down
  • MSL - Mars Science Laboratory
  • NET - No earlier than
  • RAD - Radiation Assessment Detector, an MSL instrument
  • SAM - Sample Analysis at Mars, one of MSL's onboard laboratories
  • TCM - Trajectory correction maneuver

Know your Red Planet
Finally, here's a quiz to help you sharpen your wits for the big party on Sunday night. Here's hoping the party ends with broad smiles rather than quizzical looks.

More about Mars:


Correction for 11:40 p.m. ET: I initially wrote that the Mars Science Laboratory mission cost "$2.5 million" instead of the actual $2.5 billion. Also, when discussing the landing time, I accidentally referred to Sunday instead of Monday ET. Sorry about the errors, and thanks to the commenters for helping me get the basics right.

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.