Land Ho!

What will Curiosity see as it closes in on the Red Planet?


In the sky, Mars looks like a bright, copper-colored star. It takes a telescope to be able to tell that it’s more than a dot, that it’s a whole world And it takes a big telescope to be able to see any kind of detail on its surface.

But with the Mars Curiosity rover just days away from landing, I was wondering what Mars would look like if you could physically ride along. If you were somehow onboard the spacecraft that’s carrying the rover, and you had a window to look through, what would you be able to see today? Would Mars still be a red star? Or would you be able to make out the planet’s disc yet?

To find out, I fired up NASA’s Eyes on the Solar System site. This amazing tool creates realistic simulated views based on real data that let you follow any planet, moon or spacecraft across time and space, in 3D and in real time. You really just have to play with it to know what I mean.

Here are a few screenshots that show what I found, plus a short movie of what the final approach will look like.

solar system map
Eyes on the Solar System can display a top-down view of the current positions of planets and spacecraft. As of today, Curiosity's spacecraft has completed most of its long, arcing trajectory toward Mars. At the scale of this map, it looks like it's almost on top of its target. But how close is it really?
solar system map, with distance
Fortunately, Eyes on the Solar System makes it easy to find the distance between any two objects just by clicking on them. As of today, Curiosity is roughly 5.6 million kilometers from its destination. On astronomical scales, that's a stone's throw. So is that close enough to see the disc of the planet 'out the window'?
Nope. Clicking 'Mars Science Laboratory' on the map zooms us into a 3D view of the spacecraft and its surroundings, as it sees them now. Mars is still star-like. But we have a good view of the ship. We can see the donut-shaped cruise stage, with its solar panels and heat radiators, and the white, teardrop-shaped aeroshell where the rover is tucked inside for the trip. One odd thing: the spacecraft doesn't seem to be pointed toward Mars. Why is that?
We can rotate the view in three dimensions to see things from a different perspective. Now we see why the ship is angled the way it is: the solar panels are pointed toward the sun to soak up as much power as possible. Here we get a good look at the heat shield that will protect the rover when the spacecraft slams into the Martian atmosphere at high speed. In this view, I've turned up the lights a little. If we were really there, this side of the ship would be in dark shadow.
land ho!
Land ho! So when does Mars get big in the windshield? It turns out that the planet doesn't begin to appear as a round disc at all until August 2 or so, just a few days before the landing that will take place on August 5 at about 10:30 pm Pacific time. This view is from August 5 at about 9 pm.
Arrival! Of course, at these speeds, things start to happen FAST. Mere minutes after the previous shot, the Red Planet now looms large. Not long after this point, the cruise stage will separate and fall away while the aeroshell begins the dangerous plunge into the atmosphere.

Update July 30: New – Check out the new entry, descent and landing simulation on Eyes!

Cruise stage separation
Entry into the atmosphere
Parachute deployed, now just over the landing site
The descent stage separates from the parachute and aeroshell, and begins to lower the rover down to the surface.
15 seconds before landing: the sky crane maneuver. Mt. Sharp, and a beckoning adventure, is in the background.

30 Seconds to Mars

This video shows a time lapse view of the final day’s approach.

For a quick guide to the mission and the landing, see this one-page “cheat sheet“.