Wake Up the Kids: 5 Steps to Following the Mars Curiosity Landing

by Geoff on August 5, 2012

Wake up the kids. Really. The people of earth are about to attempt a great feat: landing a rover the size of a Mini-Cooper on the surface of a planet millions of miles away.

Witnessing an event like this live, whether success or failure, will help inspire our kids as they see the value, excitement, and relevance of science and technology. These children will get a jump start on becoming the inspirers of the future, potentially leading the way in science and exploration themselves.

Well, don’t wake them up right now – just sometime before NASA’s and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s (JPL) massive Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover, “Curiosity,” makes its descent onto the surface of Mars about 12:31 AM CDT August 6 – that’s just after midnight tonight (Sunday, August 5).

Here are some steps to get your family ready:

Step 1

NOW (well, today, at least), show your kids this excellent video about the “7 minutes of terror,” the period where Curiosity must go from 13,000 mph as it enters Mars’ atmosphere to 0 mph as it is gently placed on the surface of Mars near Gale Crater.

After watching the video, click on the link below to view JPL’s great image showing the various configurations of Curiosity as she heads toward the surface (image credit: JPL/NASA).

Step 2

Watch the launch. Launches are always amazin, and it’s incredible to see what it took to get Curiosity away from earth and in a trajectory to land in a very small target area on Mars. Last November, I witnessed the launch of the Mars Curiosity (video below). There are other (better) videos on YouTube of the same launch.

Step 3

Follow along throughout the day and during Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL) of Curiosity. Educate your kids about what’s going to happen tonight and why it’s important (I’ll let you ask the Google that question yourself). One of the best ways to keep up during landing day (and during the post-landing mission) is via Twitter.

  • @MarsCurisoity – Official Mars Curiosity Twitter account
  • @Doctor_Astro – MSL EDL engineer
  • @steltzner – MSL EDL team lead
  • @LeeCuriosity – MSL Guidance, Navigation, and Control Systems Manager
  • @SciAstro – He’s in charge of science at NASA
  • @marsroverdriver – He’s one of the JPL engineers that tells the rovers (including the rovers already on planet), where to go
  • @doug_ellison – Visualization Producer at JPL (expert on NASA Eyes)
  • @claratma – Student who submitted this essay to the naming contest for Curiosity (and won!)
  • #MSL – hash tag people around the world can use to tweet their thoughts
  • #NASASocial – hash tag used by lucky folks selected to be present at JPL during the landing or at several other NASA centers around the country over the weekend

I’ve created a Twitter list of all of these people if you’d prefer to follow that:  The List

Of course, feel free to follow me (@geoffryken) as I’ll try to tweet/re-tweet info I see from other Twitter users and news sources.

Step 4

WAKE. THE. KIDS. UP. Well, maybe not the little babies. I have a 3 year old, and I don’t think I’d wake her up just yet. Maybe 5 or 6 year olds can better grasp what’s happening with this landing.

After Midnight CDT, Curiosity will reach the atmosphere of Mars and begin the complicated, computer-controlled steps to place her wheels on Martion soil. Due to the communication delay between Mars and earth, we won’t know this has started until about 14 minutes later.  If you have NASA TV from your cable or satellite provider, just tune in.  Otherwise, you can watch it online here. NASA TV’s coverage will begin at 10:30 pm CDT, a couple hours before landing.

Again, keep in mind that there is about a 14 minute delay in receiving signals from Mars here on earth. If things go well with satellites orbiting Mars, we should know very quickly tonight if Curiosity is safe and sound.  However, a number of factors could cause communication delays of a couple of hours to a couple of day.  Feel free to tuck the kids back in bed in either of these cases. 🙂  If we’re extremely lucky, we might get a picture from Curiosity’s rear hazard avoidance camera fairly soon after a successful landing.

So, educate yourself, educate the kids, and watch history happen. If Curiosity  makes it safely to Mars, celebrate with them. If something goes wrong, and Curiosity doesn’t make it, take a moment to discuss with your kids that exploration and furthering scientific knowledge are hard. They are hard, they must be done, and we will continue trying. And we can all be a part of it.

Step 5

Go back to bed.

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