NASA and Microsoft have coded an Xbox Live game that allows players to land a virtual copy of the space agency’s Mars Curiosity rover on the red planet.
"Technology is making it possible for the public to participate in exploration as it never has before," explained NASA JPL rep Michelle Viotti. "Because Mars exploration is fundamentally a shared human endeavor, we want everyone around the globe to have the most immersive experience possible."
The real life Curiosity is currently on a precise course for an early August rendezvous with the red planet.
However, landing Curiosity on the surface of Mars will not be an easy adventure for NASA.
"The Curiosity landing is the hardest NASA mission ever attempted in the history of robotic planetary exploration," explained NASA exec John Grunsfeld.
"While the challenge is great, the team's skill and determination give me high confidence in a successful landing."
Indeed, to achieve the precision needed for landing safely inside Gale Crater, the spacecraft will have to fly like a wing in the upper atmosphere instead of dropping like a rock. As such, an air-bag method used on previous Mars rovers will not work to land the 1-ton rover.
Instead, mission engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California designed a "sky crane" method for the final several seconds of the flight. A backpack with retro-rockets controlling descent speed will lower the rover on three nylon cords just before touchdown.
During a critical period lasting approximately seven minutes, the MSL spacecraft carrying Curiosity must decelerate from about 13,200 mph (about 5,900 meters per second) to allow the rover to land on the surface at 1.7 mph (three-fourths of a meter per second).
"Those seven minutes are the most challenging part of this entire mission," said Pete Theisinger, JPL's MSL project manager.
"For the landing to succeed, hundreds of events will need to go right, many with split-second timing and all controlled autonomously by the spacecraft. We've done all we can think of to succeed. We expect to get Curiosity safely onto the ground, but there is no guarantee. The risks are real."
During the initial weeks after the actual landing, JPL mission controllers will put the rover through a series of checkouts and activities to prepare it for a trek on Mars while gradually ramping up scientific investigations. Curiosity will then begin investigating whether an area with a wet history inside Mars' Gale Crater ever has offered an environment favorable for microbial life.