Ready ... set ... Mars!

Tonight's the night. If all goes right with the most audacious plan ever conceived to land a probe on another planet, Curiosity Rover's wheels will...

Tonight's the night. If all goes right with the most audacious plan ever conceived to land a probe on another planet, Curiosity Rover's wheels will crunch into Martian soil at 12:31 a.m. (Central time) Monday morning. One of the first things the probe will do on arrival is take a picture, get on the phone and e-mail it to its best friends back on Earth. You'd do the same, right?

The first pictures will be taken within minutes of landing by the Hazard-Avoidance cameras (Hazcams) attached to the back and front of the rover.  These feature wide-angle fisheye lenses capped with clear lens covers to protect the glass from Martian dust on landing. The covers are designed to pop off, but if they don't, the lenses will still provide a clear view. Lots of us use similar transparent filters to protect our camera lenses from Earth dust.

"A set of low-resolution gray scale Hazcam images (thumbnails) will be acquired within minutes of landing on the surface," said Justin Maki of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Once all of the critical systems have been checked out by the engineering team and the mast is deployed, the rover will image the landing site with higher-resolution cameras."


The low-res Hazcam images will give engineers a look around Curiosity's immediate environment as well as determine if the robot is upright or tilted; stable ground is required before the mast holding the high resolution cameras is raised into position.

It'll take about two hours for the first pictures to arrive as Curiosity waits for the Mars Odyssey orbiter to fly by and relay the data back to Earth.  Color photos from the Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) taken as the probe descended to the surface will be released later Monday. On Tuesday the 7th, we'll see the first photos taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) . Though designed to shoot closeups of soil and rocks, it will grab and send an initial wide view of the landing area in Gale Crater .

Images from the medium resolution Navcams mounted on the mast will arrive three days after the landing. As this set of pictures races back to Earth at light speed, the high-resolution Mastcams - one equipped with a 100mm telephoto lens, the other a medium wide 34mm lens - will start clicking away. Yes, that's the juicy stuff.

I'll be updating my site tonight with landing news and more. If you're in Duluth, Minn. or planning to visit today, check out the Marshall Alworth Planetarium's Curiosity Landing Party . It starts at 4 p.m. and continues till 1 a.m. Monday. The event features live streaming video of the Planetary Society's Planetfest   in the star dome Kids activities include an alien art competition, build your own spacecraft and dress up like an alien. Martians preferred.

Here are a couple links you'll find handy tonight and in the coming days:

* Watch the whole shebang online on NASA-TV .  The live broadcast begins at 10:30 p.m. (CDT)


* Lots of cities like Duluth are having live events to mark the landing. Click HERE to find one near you.

*  See the raw images  as soon as mission control makes them available. Curiosity's first pictures will be posted at that link.

* NASA image gallery to view finished photos and photo compilations along with caption information.

* Follow the mission on Curiosity's  Facebook and Twitter pages.

See ya' later tonight!

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