While the Olympic Games continue to dazzle this weekend, the Mars Curiosity rover will perform a perfectly choreographed display above the surface of the red planet. During its hyped "seven minutes of terror," the rover will deploy its parachute, ignite rockets to slow its descent and finally lower itself on a sky crane.
This entire sequence of events is computer-controlled under extreme heat and speeds. Oh, and did we mention that there's a 14 minute delay signal delay between the rover and Earth? That sounds like an Olympic feat to me.
Excitement has been bubbling over this week as scientists have toured the talk show circuit and major news outlets have covered the landing. Although the rover's primary mission is to search for signs of past microbial life on Mars, it has also re-invigorated the public's interest in space science. Here's a quick rundown of some of this week's buzz and a guide to the best ways to watch Curiosity's touch down at 1:31 AM Eastern Time on Monday morning (Sunday evening for earlier time zones).
One of my favorite comedians, Stephen Colbert, has a history of inviting scientists and science promoters to his show. So unsurprisingly, Colbert hosted NASA scientist John Grunsfeld on last night's show.
Grunsfeld outlined the most exciting parts of the mission while Colbert interjected with his typical sarcastic humor. The highlight of the interview, in my opinion, was the huge round of applause Grunsfeld received after narrating a snippet of the video above. When portrayed in an accessible way, people love to hear about this kind of mission.
Where to Watch
Many local planetariums and science centers are hosting watching events and "pajama parties" on Sunday night. NASA has compiled a list of the events in a convenient map, but the map unfortunately includes many other events on different dates.
The best way to find out about watching parties in your area is to search for a local planetarium, science museum or even local university.
The Adler Planetarium in Chicago, for instance, will have live presentations, interactive activities and a live stream from NASA. Science laboratories, like my former undergraduate stomping grounds in Boulder, CO, are hosting similar events.
If you prefer to stay at home, you can witness history on NASA TV.
For more information about the Mars Science Laboratory (the mission behind the Curiosity rover), check out JPL's website.