NASA’s Rover-on-a-Rope Approaching Mars

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A computer illustration of Curiosity.

It's been four years since man sent an unmanned probe to the surface of Mars, but tonight —  at around 10:31 Pasadena time — NASA hopes to execute a mind-bogglingly complicated landing of a new Mars rover called Curiosity. Part of the Mars Science Laboratory program, the $2.5 billion, car-size machine was created to spend two years exploring a peculiar twelve-mile-high sediment formation in the center of the vast Gale Crater. NASA scientists hope that by studying the formation, they can get a clearer snapshot of Mars's geological history, and maybe answer once and for all if Mars ever supported life. What's most unusual about this mission is the convoluted landing process, which has been dubbed the "seven minutes of terror" and involves a parachute to slow the entry vehicle, 76 pyrotechnic devices, 500,000 lines of code, and the lowering of the rover by way of nylon tethers and a communications umbilical cord.

The latest online update from NASA says that, "Curiosity remains in good health with all systems operating as expected." But we're guessing there's still a lot of anxious, jittery people in Pasadena and Cape Canaveral. As the New York Times so gently put it: "Failure could set back American-led Mars explorations for years." And, just to really amp up the anxiety, there's a fourteen-minute communication lag for signals sent from Mars. Seven minutes of terror, plus fourteen minutes of radio silence — perfect for a 21-minute nap.

To really get what all the space-dorkery is about, watch this NASA video, which comes complete with a super-dramatic soundtrack.