KPCC reporters have been talking to Southland scientists and engineers and counting down the days until NASA's most ambitious rover yet — Curiosity — prepares to land on the Martian surface. Follow the series online.
NASA's video commentary of Mars' landing:
Update 10:29 p.m.: Parachute deployed. The hovercraft will now guide the rover and then lower it to the ground.
Update 10:27 p.m. Lots of clapping in the control room. They just received word that the Odyssey orbiter is on line and sending data on the landing. NASA will likely be able to get info on the landing right away.
Update 10:25 p.m. Curiosity has entered Mars' atmosphere. Now begins the 7 minutes of terror that will last until the rover is on the ground.
Update 10:18 p.m. The craft is sending "heartbeat tones," signals to Earth that let the anxious engineers at JPL know Curiosity is okay. Mars' gravity is now pulling on the rover and speeding up its descent.
Update 10:15 p.m.: Mission control is reporting that Curiosity is right on target. With less than 20 minutes until landing, the rover has just separated from its cruise stage machinery. The landing gear is getting ready.
Update 9:45 p.m.: Seth Green from "Austin Powers," "Family Guy" and "Robot Chicken" came to JPL to watch the Curiosity Rover Landing after he got an invitation.
"I jumped at the chance," Green remarked. He's been a fan of space exploration since he watched space shuttle launches on TV as a child. Green says he's optimistic about Curiosity's chances tonight.
"JPL is a pretty badass place. They have built some awesome stuff. Any previous missteps with landing on Mars aside, they have got a pretty good track record," Green said.
Update 9:20 p.m.: NASA reports that the Mars rover is completely on its own as it approaches the outermost of the planet's two moons.
I'm inside the orbit of Deimos and completely on my own. Wish me luck!— Curiosity Rover (@MarsCuriosity) August 6, 2012
Update 8:50 p.m.: While the pressure is on the team supervising the landing, outside mission control on the JPL campus it feels like a rock concert. NASA employees from headquarters in Washington, D.C. are here to watch the landing. There is food and drink for sale, and a merchandise table hawking shirts, pens, patches and a rover lunch pail.
Update 7:50 p.m. NASA has many famous fans. Will.i.am showed up at JPL to talk about space exploration with astronaut Leland Melvin. Other stars expected to drop in tonight include Morgan Freeman, Angie Dickinson, Wil Wheaton, Alex Trebek and Seth Green. It's a red planet / red carpet affair.
Update 6:15 p.m.: JPL is expecting 400 journalists tonight. The newsroom is already packed, hot and full of the sound of reporters furiously typing into laptops.
For those not on deadline, JPL has set up an Xbox loaded with the free Mars Rover Landing video game.
Update 5:30 p.m. : Eerie calm at JPL headquarters as engineers await rover's approach
With mere hours to go before the Curiosity rover lands on Mars, there is an eerie calm settled over NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
“It’s definitely the quiet before the storm,” said JPL project scientist John Grotzinger.
The mission is currently on track for a smooth landing as of Sunday afternoon. The rover is on course and the weather on Mars is cooperating, meaning no dust storms near the landing site in Gale Crater.
The rover is the most sophisticated scientific machine ever sent to the red planet. Landing the one-ton vehicle will involve heat shields, a parachute and a hovercraft that will ultimately lower Curiosity on cables to the planet’s surface.
Once on the ground, the rover will search the dirt and rocks of Mars for organic compounds, the building blocks of life.
If this mission is a success, says JPL’s John Grotzinger, it “will certainly affect our plans going forward for other science mission to Mars. Other missions to other planetary bodies, Europa, Enceladus, Titan… so that’s the exciting part.”
If it fails, he said NASA will revaluate its approach, but the space organization is committed to further studying the surface of Mars up close. “That’s where the most interesting science is, the most interesting exploration,” Grotzinger added.
Currently, NASA has only one future mission to Mars on the books. It’s an orbiter known as the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN, or MAVEN, set to launch in 2014.
Due to budget cuts, NASA pulled out of the planning stages for two collaborations with the European Space Agency that would have sent scientific equipment to Mars in 2016 and 2018.
Update 10:34 a.m. : Curiosity on track for final approach to Mars
NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity is on its final approach to Mars, and scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena say all systems seem to be go.
The one ton, nuclear-powered mobile science lab has fully charged its batteries, and is warming up its jets to get ready for landing. The flight team had a chance to adjust the flight path, but chose not to because everything appears to be perfectly on track.
"It’s a little anxiety-provoking but I will say I slept better last night than I slept in years because she is kind of on her own now," said Adam Steltzner, the head of the Mars landing team.
Steltzner emphasized that, once Curiosity begins its landing sequence, the scientists and engineers at JPL become bystanders. They have no more control than “anybody watching at home has,” he said. “We are all along for the ride.”
Touchdown is scheduled for 10:31 p.m. PST Sunday night. It will take 14 minutes for the JPL team to receive a signal from Mars indicating whether the landing was a success.
The scientists at JPL have a variety of traditions for planetary landings. For instance, they eat peanuts on landing day.
Some have their own traditions: One grew mutton chops, another is carrying around lucky trinkets. Systems Engineer Bobak Ferdowsi has a custom of changing his hair for landing day. This time after a vote from his team members, he shaved it into a mohawk and colored it to look like the American flag.
KPCC's Sanden Totten will be live at JPL in Pasadena throughout the evening with updates on Curiosity's landing. Follow him on Twitter for updates:
Some— Sanden Totten (@sandentotten) August 5, 2012
@nasajpl team members good luck traditions today: one grew mutton chops - one carries trinkets - one shaved a stars & stripes mohawk.