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The Mars Science Laboratory Mission has piles of cool equipment on board Curiosity Rover, which is closing in on Mars as we speak. The landing is expected to be next Sunday/Monday, 10:31 p.m. Aug. 5 PDT (1:31 a.m. Aug. 6 EDT, 05:31 Aug. 6 Universal Time) plus or minus a minute.. But not really, because the event is happening a it far away in spacetime; those are the times that the signals from Mars will arrive on the planet Earth, about 13.8 minutes after the event has happened. The mission is expected to last one Martian year, which is close to two Earth years. The weather at the landing site will be clear and ranging from 90 degrees below zero C to about freezing (-130F to 32F).

The location of the landing is ner the Martian equator, near the base of Mount Sharp inside the Gale crater.

The rover is about three meters long not ocuting it’s arm, and just under three meters wide, and 2.1 meters high to its tallest point. The arm is about 2.1 meter long and the wheels are about a half a meter in diameter. It weights just under 4,000 kilos (over four tons). The vehicle is a hybrid of sorts, and will run on a nuclear thermoelectric generator with lithium ion batteries. Batteries are included.

The instruments Curiosity will carry include: a Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer, cameras, a robotic Martian-designed loupe, radiation detectors, environmental monitoring gear and a very fancy chemistry set.

NASA says this about the scientific investigations:

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission will study whether the Gale Crater area of Mars has evidence of past and present habitable environments. These studies will be part of a broader examination of past and present processes in the Martian atmosphere and on its surface. The research will use 10 instrument-based science investigations. The mission’s rover, Curiosity, carries the instruments for these investigations and will support their use by providing overland mobility, sample-acquisition capabilities, power and communications. The primary mission will last one Mars year (98 weeks).

The payload includes mast-mounted instruments to survey the surroundings and assess potential sampling targets from a distance; instruments on Curiosity’s robotic arm for close-up inspections; laboratory instruments inside the rover for analysis of samples from rocks, soils and atmosphere; and instruments to monitor the environment around the rover. In addition to the science payload, engineering sensors on the heat shield will gather information about Mars’ atmosphere and the spacecraft’s performance during its descent through the atmosphere.

To make best use of the rover’s science capabilities, a diverse international team of scientists and engineers will make daily decisions about the rover’s activities for the following day. Even if all the rover’s technology performs flawlessly, some types of evidence the mission will seek about past environments may not have persisted in the rock record. While the possibility that life might have existed on Mars provokes great interest, a finding that conditions did not favor life would also pay off with valuable insight about differences and similarities between early Mars and early Earth.

The landing itself has been dubbed the “seven minutes of terror” because it is so complicated that even engineers will be terrified. Here is a graphic depicting the landing plan:

Here is a video about the mission:

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