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‘Curiosity’ reaches Mars tonight: Wash U researcher helps rover traverse red planet

(Image courtesy of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory)

Not long after midnight central time tonight, the rover known as Curiosity will land on Mars.

It will take the rover seven minutes to get from the Mars atmosphere to the planet's surface. But because it takes about twice that long for signals to travel from Mars to Earth, scientists won't know anything about the landing until after it's already over.

VIDEO: '7 Minutes of Terror'


(Via NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory)

If all goes well with those “seven minutes of terror,” as NASA has called the complex, multi-stage landing sequence, Washington University planetary geologist Ray Arvidson will be helping to plan out Curiosity's path on Mars.

He'll also help make sure the 1-metric-ton, Volkswagen-beetle-sized rover doesn't fall over while it's drilling for samples.

Arvidson says the rover can map the terrain around it in 3D, using high resolution cameras.

“They're a little bit higher than a human,” Arvidson said. “And they have the visual acuity of a human eye. But they have more color. They have an extended wavelength. So it's kind of like being on Mars if you were really tall, and you were looking around in color-plus.”

Many of the images taken by Curiosity will be made available to the public.

Arvidson says a day on Mars — known as a “sol” — is 40 minutes longer than a day on Earth, which will make for a strange work schedule.

“For the first 90 sols of the mission, we'll be living on Mars time,” Arvidson said. “So our shifts start 40 minutes later each day, which is kind of crazy after a couple weeks, because you get this bizarre jet lag.”

Arvidson says Curiosity contains a sophisticated mobile chemistry lab that will analyze the Mars surface for organic matter. If it finds some, that could mean the Martian environment was once suitable for life.

You can watch tonight's landing (almost) live on NASA TV, here.

Follow Véronique LaCapra on Twitter: @KWMUScience

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