How to watch the Mars landing

At 10:31 p.m. PDT Sunday, NASA’s Curiosity Rover is slated to land on Mars after an eight-month, 345-million-mile journey. Here’s how you can watch this truly historic event.

The landing will be livestreamed via NASA TV here, and JPL Ustream with commentary here (or without commentary here.)  NASA TV is also available via satellite TV. Gamers can view the landing live on their Xbox 360(s MSFT) consoles, according to Microsoft’s Major Nelson blog and warm up for it with the Kinect Mars Rover simulator (free download required).

If you want to prep now, check out two “Grand Entrance” videos, one hosted by William Shatner, the other by Wil Wheaton, detailing the project. Or, for a social experience, sign onto a  Google+ Hangout hosted by the SETI Institute to watch the live stream and chat.

There are also a variety of in-person events at local planetaria and other venues including at Western Kentucky University’s Hardin Planetarium  in Bowling Green; Los Angeles’ Griffith Observatory (in the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon no less); Columbia, Mo. and elsewhere. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory posted a list of local events here.

Here’s the thing though: a lot can go wrong on the Rover’s descent. The big question is whether the soft landing that NASA engineers have worked on for years will actually happen, given Mars’ thin atmosphere. The landing sequence calls for the deployment of a gigantic parachute, a heat shield that burns away at 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, a detachable landing crane and booster rockets, all of which are needed to slow the craft down from 13,000 mph in 7 minutes to a speed that can facilitate the aforementioned soft landing. There’s an awful lot of variables in that mix — if one thing fails, all bets are off. ( posted a timeline on past Mars expeditions. The success rate is not high.) Adding to the suspense, it takes 14 minutes for the signal from the Rover to get to Earth.

A soft landing would mean that the Curiosity Rover can get on with its work, which includes examining and reporting back on the weather, geology and radiation levels on the red planet. One key question that it could help answer, as Wheaton  and Shatner state in their respective videos, is whether there was ever life on Mars.

And, in the off chance you’re not one of the 1.2 million-plus people that have seen NASA’s “7 minutes of terror” video, here’s your chance to catch up and get ready for Sunday night’s main event.

Photos courtesy of  Flickr user NASA Goddard Photo and Video