For eight months and 352 million miles, rocket scientists at NASA Langley Research Center have counted the days until the Curiosity rover lands on the surface of Mars.
The ETA is 1:31 a.m. Eastern time Monday, and the countdown continues with a day-long social media tour Friday at the Hampton facility. There, a chosen 30 men and women will learn more about Langley's pivotal role in the mission, as well as "some other things that are pretty cool," said spokesman Mike Finneran.
That role encompasses the rover's landing phase -- the nail-biting "seven minutes of terror" as the craft rips through the Martian atmosphere to, NASA hopes, a successful landing. It includes the design of the re-entry parachute, instruments embedded on the craft's heat shield to study the atmosphere during descent, and the mini-computer that controls the firing of a laser to blast apart rocks for study.
Information gleaned will provide crucial information for future missions, manned or otherwise, to Mars or to other planets or asteroids, said Finneran.
Friday's "social" is what's known as a Tweetup, a term derived from the popular online micro-blogging site Twitter. NASA selected the participants from among 266 hopefuls based in part on their expertise and audience online.
"We have people from all around the country, as far as San Diego and Minnesota," Finneran said. "But the common interest that brings them together here is their interest in aerospace and NASA."
Some are educators, one is an active-duty Marine, and one is "among other things, really interested in Harley Davidson motorcycles," said Finneran. "People of all ages and races and walks of life."
As they tour, they'll tweet, blog and post to Facebook. In turn, their followers will repost, as will theirs, and theoretically the information spreads exponentially.
NASA Langley's first Tweetup was held last November, a few weeks before the Curiosity launched. Participants then were shown a wind tunnel, a simulated moon habitat and the test splashdown of an 18,000-pound space capsule. They lunched with an astronaut.
This time, they'll be briefed on the car-sized, one-ton Curiosity -- a mobile Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) and the largest rover ever landed on another planet.
They'll see a model of the Orion -- a partially solar-powered spacecraft designed to carry astronauts deeper into space than they've ever been and back again. It could also be used to resupply the International Space Station. Built at Langley, it's scheduled for its first test flight in 2014.
Also on the tour is a scale model of the Dream Chaser, a reusable craft that could carry up to seven astronauts to the space station and beyond. Intended to fill the vacuum created when the space shuttles aged out, the Dream Chaser is the brainchild of NASA's Commercial Crew Development program in partnership with the Sierra Nevada Corporation.
NASA Langley is also participating in Mars Mania weekend events at its affiliated Virginia Air and Space Center in Hampton; a Mars Family Day on Saturday; and a Mars Midnight Madness gathering from late Sunday until the rover lands in the wee hours Monday.
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