Nowadays everyone calls it the “Curiosity rover,” but I got to know it as the Mars Science Laboratory, and I’m too old and set in my ways to switch. Launched on November 26, 2011, the mission is scheduled to land on Mars’s Gale Crater tonight/tomorrow morning: 5:31 UTC, which translates to 1:30 a.m. Eastern time or 10:20 p.m. Pacific. See here and here for info about where to watch. Between this and the Higgs boson, the universe is clearly conspiring to keep science enthusiasts on the East Coast from getting a proper night’s sleep.
NASA has done a great job getting people excited about the event, and one of their big successes has been this video, “Seven Minutes of Terror.” Love the ominous soundtrack.
Mars is about fourteen light-minutes away from Earth, so scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory aren’t actually able to fine-tune the spacecraft’s approach, like you used to do playing Lunar Lander in the arcade back in the day. Everything has to be carefully programmed well ahead of time, setting up an elaborately choreographed series of events that guides the lander through the seven-minute journey from the top of the Martian atmosphere to eventual touchdown. I still struggle with parallel parking, which is why I’m a theoretical physicist and not a JPL engineer.