In the early morning hours of Aug. 6, NASA and space enthusiasts around the world will be able to monitor the Mars landing of the most advanced robot ever to be sent to another world.
Named Curiosity, the robot — or rover — has been heading toward Mars for nearly eight months. The landing is scheduled for 1:31 a.m. EDT.
"Is it crazy? Not so much," said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program. "Is it risky? Landing on Mars is always risky. Every landing is unique. Every landing is like a first."
At a news conference Monday, NASA scientists said they are looking for evidence that life existed on Mars billions of years ago. This evidence could include indicators of water, sources of energy or sources of carbon, all of which are essential to sustain life.
Curiosity was launched into space on Nov. 26 from Cape Canaveral. The rover will go from 13,000 mph to zero in seven minutes and will land in Gale Crater, which NASA scientists think held water billions of years ago.
In the middle of Gale Crater is Mount Sharp, a mountain that's taller than any in the lower 48 U.S. states, said John Grotzinger, a NASA scientist who's working on the mission. Curiosity will explore the crater and the mountain, looking for clues of life
The Curiosity rover is a Mini Cooper-sized vehicle with six wheels and is a step up from previous Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which were each about the size of a golf cart. Those two rovers landed in 2004.
The precision of the landing will be a significant improvement from those of previous Mars missions, said Pete Theisinger, a project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Helped by better communications technology, scientists will be able to land Curiosity within a very small range, on top of the most valuable scientific resource in the crater.
The entry process also will be greatly improved, Theisinger said. In missions in the 1970s, the rover approached the Martian surface "falling like a rock," he said. Curiosity will provide both black and white and color panoramic, high resolution photos of the Martian surface as well as of Gale Crater and Mount Sharp.