NASA is set to land yet another rover on the planet Mars tonight to deepen the search for signs of life.
At 1:31a.m. EST tonight, Curiosity will begin eight and half minute descent to the surface of Mars. The module will be travelling at a teeth rattling 13,200 mph when it hits the atmosphere of the red planet, and will use booster rockets to slow the descent. Due to the timing of the landing, Earth will go out of alignment with Mars one minute before the descent begins, and it may be hours or even days before we receive a communication from Curiosity as to whether or not it successfully made it to the surface of the planet.
Should it land without incident, the newest rover on Mars will be able to drill into rock on a mountain near its landing site and test soil samples. Thanks to multiple cameras on Curiosity, we should also receive not only the traditional black and white fish-eye photos we are so used to seeing from other rovers, but also high definition color images for the first time. Weighing in at 2,000 lbs, the rover is covered in a full suite of tools that will allow it to take soil samples, detect radiation, monitor the environment and a host of other useful information should we ever decide to send a manned mission to our neighboring planet.
NASA can only hope to have as much success with Curiosity as it did with Spirit and Opportunity. The last two rovers both arrived on Mars in 2004 and were expected to only last 90 days each. Spirit transmitted its last message on March 22, 2010, while Opportunity is still functioning to this day. Curiosity is expected to last 1 Mars year, or 687 Earth days.