Update 10:54 p.m. "We are wheels down on Mars," a mission control announcer stated Sunday night in La Cañada Flintridge, as 154 million miles away the Curiosity rover landed successfully on Mars, according to NASA.
Jet Propulsion Lab and Caltech personnel erupted in high fives, applause and tears.
Within minutes NASA reported receiving images from the rover, images that may have been calibrated with the help of a professor's work on a sundial intended to aid exposure of images from the surface of the red planet.
Posted 4:04 p.m. An audacious attempt to land the umanned rover Curiosity intact on Mars was on schedule for 10:31 p.m. Pacific Time Sunday Aug. 5, according to NASA, and scientists who built their careers on the $2.5 billion mission were anticipating "Seven Minutes of Terror."
The landing site for the 1,982-pound rover is near the base of Mount Sharp, inside Gale Crater, an estimated 154 million miles from Earth, according to NASA.
Getting the rover safely on the surface will require a complex entry-descent-landing sequence that "looks crazy," NASA's lead entry-descent-landing engineer Adam Steltzner said three times in the intro to a video produced by the Jet Propulsion Lab in La Cañada Flintridge.
During news briefings streamed live Sunday from the Jet Propulsion Lab, mission leaders spokes openly of the chances the Curiosity mission could fail. NASA bills the entry-descent-landing sequence as "one of the most difficult feats of robotic exploration ever attempted."
NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft was "healthy and right on course for a landing in several hours," NASA officials reported Sunday afternoon.
"Emotions are strong in the control room at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory . . . as the hours and miles race toward touchdown of the car-size Curiosity at about 10:31 p.m. PDT tonight."
It was easy to watch Curiosity's launch live on Nov. 26, 2011, from Cape Canaveral, Fla., but there will be no live video of the dramatic multi-tasking it will take to get the rover on the surface of Mars.
"Even the radio waves that indicate the rover's position have to obey the laws of physics and recognize the 14-minute communications delay between Earth and Mars," Wired Science reports.
Nevertheless, there will be multiple ways to keep track of the action online.
Two live feeds of video during key landing activities from mission control rooms at JPL will be carried on http://www.ustream.tv between 8:30 p.m. and 11 p.m. PDT on Aug. 5, and between 12:30 a.m. and 1:30 a.m. PDT on Aug. 6, according to NASA.
Redlands and Loma Linda residents can claim to the Curiosity rover.
University of Redlands Professor of Astronomy and Physics Tyler Nordgren helped design a key detail that will help the Mars explorer transmit more accurate images from the red planet's surface: a sundial.
"One of the reasons you might have a sundial on a spacecraft on another planet isn't to tell time," Nordgren said in a University of Redlands interview in 2011. "We've got pretty good clocks for that. The reason you might have a sundial is if you're interested in calibrating your camera images.
"Here on Earth, we take a photograph, trees are green, the sky is blue, you know when your colors are right," Nordgren said. "But on Mars, there's none of those visible cues. You've got red rocks, strangely colored sky, you have no idea.
"So you want to put something on your spacecraft where you know what the colors are, and this is called a calibration target," Nordgren said. "You also want to have a little post in the middle of that target, so you can see what the colors look like in direct sunlight and when they're in shadow.
"Well if you've got something that's a little post casting shadows, that's a sundial," Nordgren said. "So a group of about six astronomers and artists turned the calibration target on this rover into an active, working sundial. And so now, we've got this little piece of art sitting on the surface of Mars, hopefully next year that will actually be a working sundial."
A message is engraved on the base of the sundial, Nordgren recently told WTVR of Richmond, Va.
"We put a special message on this sundial around the base, in which it really talks about our history of our understanding of Mars," Nordgren said. "And what's crucial to how science works, is that we talk about all the things we used to get wrong on Mars. We used to think it was a god, and it’s not. We used to think when we first figured out it was a planet that it must be a planet like the Earth. But it wasn’t. And then we started sending spacecraft and thought it was a dead, cratered land like the Moon, but it’s not."
To read the full interview with WTVR and view photos of the sundial, click here.