Mars mania! | The Curiosity Rover inspires museums, games
If you haven't seen the "Seven minutes of terror" video about the Mars landing, we'll start by telling you: It's a must-watch. Who knew the geek-geniuses at NASA's Jet Prepulsion Laboratory were so slick?
The United States launched a probe to Mars last November; after nine months of zooming through space, it's set to land late Sunday night (shortly after midnight—so technically, very early Monday morning). In an effort to educate us masses about the project via YouTube, a series of NASA engineers discuss the various stages of the Mars Science Laboratory's super-dramatic final seven minutes of flight. With its pulse-quickening sci-fi/horror soundtrack and dramatic lighting (some of the NASA nerds are half in shadow), the slick video is impossible to resist. As the scientists explain what (they hope) will happen during the craft's tumultuous seven-minute landing process, statistics flash on the screen: 76 pyrotechnic devices. 1,600 degrees. Oh, and "ZERO margin of error." (Even scientists get too excited to resist the caps-lock button.)
"If any one thing doesn't work right," one scientist intones, gravely, "it's game over." (We can almost hear Bill Paxton's warning to the Aliens cast.)
We bring up the video because it's the best way to capture everyone's about this monumental robot expedition. And of course, whether the Curiosity rover sticks its landing or dies a fiery, smashy death on the surface of the so-called Red Planet, celebrating the human achievements that made this interplanetary exploration even possible is the goal of two of Chicago's finest museums, the Adler Planetarium and the Museum of Science and Industry. Also, given the video's high quality, it's no surprise that it runs on a continual loop at MSI right now—although you don't want to wait to see it, so you might as well check it out right now. Go ahead, we'll wait the five minutes it'll take you to watch.
Supersonic parachutes! Sky-crane maneuvers! Told ya it was really cool.
And now you know why, come Monday (if everything goes right), the big-buzz story is going to be all about Curiosity and Mars, even more than Olympics or Lolla. And that's why the Adler is having an after-hours Curiosity Landing Party Sunday night. Because of the late hour of the actual rover landing, this free event's not a great call for young kids—it starts at 9pm and ends at 2am Monday—but older kids and science-geek parents can enjoy finding out if Curiosity lands safely or not in the presence of Adler staffers who'll explain it all. They'll be broadcasting a live feed from NASA's mission control, along with pre-recorded videos about the mission.
For added fun, there's a contest for anyone wearing "Mars red" (although the planet is really more orange) or space-themed pajamas. Outside, telescopes will be set up for stargazing (if you get there early enough, you might be able to catch Saturn before it sets behind the skyscrapers to the west), and light refreshments will be served.
And because the Adler peeps know that timing is way past many kids' bedtime, you can still plug into some Mars madness if you visit the planetarium Monday. One highlight: Visitors can play a new video game, Mars Rover Landing—a collaboration between NASA and Microsoft which lets you try to land the Curiosity. (It's also available via free download for Xbox 360 with Kinect, so you can also play at home.)
Meanwhile, at MSI in Hyde Park, a small but nifty new exhibit just opened. Running through September 30, "Life in Space?" is really two mini exhibits in two distinct small gallery spaces (separated by a food-court area). One side features the Lunar Greenhouse, an advanced prototype of an actual greenhouse that we hope to one day install on the moon, which will provide fresh food as well as clean air for any astronauts who end up living for a time on the moon's surface. Across the hall, you'll find the more visually engaging half of "Life in Space?", which focuses on Mars and our attempts to send spacecraft there (either into the planet's orbit or onto its surface).
As one chart shows, getting to Mars is clearly an enormous challenge. Several satellites were destroyed during the launch, or they ended up lost in outer space. As of right now, only six landing craft have made it to Mars's surface—and a super-keen, full-scale replica of the hopeful seventh arrival is right here at MSI. (It's one of only two replicas that NASA has sent out to U.S. museums.) This international mobile science lab, an international effort, is packed with a wide range of equipment, including multiple radiation detectors, environmental sensors, spectometers (to measure and analyze the chemical composition of Martian rocks and soil) and, of course, cameras.
Looking at this large replica rover really makes those "seven minutes of terror" seem more understandable, which is exactly what the exhibit needs to do. Add our names to the list of Team Curiosity fans.