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How to Track Mars Rover Landing Live: Professor Helped Design Key Sundial

Tyler Nordgren, a California astronomy and physics professor, helped design Curiosity's sundial, a tool that will allow calibration of camera and video exposures on the surface of Mars.

It's billed as "Seven Minutes of Terror," and a look at video illustrations of how an unmanned rover called Curiosity is expected to land on Mars at 10:31 p.m. Pacific Time on Sunday, Aug. 5 appears to justify the hype.

"When people look at it, it looks crazy," NASA's lead entry-descent-landing engineer Adam Steltzner says in a video produced by the Jet Propulsion Lab in La Cañada Flintridge. "That's a very natural thing. Sometimes when we look at it, it looks crazy. It is the result of reasoned engineering thought. But it still looks crazy."

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.

A feed including commentary and interviews will be at www.ustream.tv/nasajpl, and an "uninterrupted, clean feed" will be at www.ustream.tv/nasajpl2, according to NASA.

Earth-to-Mars distance on landing day will be an estimated 154 million miles, according to NASA, and Redlands and Loma Linda residents can claim at least one local connection 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 callibrating 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 callibration 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 callibration 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."

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