Followers of the Mars rover can now experience their own "seven minutes of terror" using their Xbox 360 video game system and Kinect motion controller.
The descent and landing of the rover Curiosity, expected to reach Mars on Aug. 5, has been described as "seven minutes of terror" by those at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
To get gamers engaged with the Curiosity's travels, NASA teamed up with Microsoft to create the Mars Rover Landing game, available for download free Monday via Xbox Live. "We went to some pains to reflect some authentic details in the game experience," says Jeff Norris of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, "and we are hoping that people a little bit of a taste of what we all are going to be going through late on the night of Aug. 5."
NASA launched the $2.5 billion Mars rover Curiosity — officially named the Mars Science Laboratory— on its voyage back in November. Its landing is planned for Aug. 5. When it lands, the rover will collect and analyze samples for signs of whether the planet could support life.
To play the Mars Rover Landing game, players will use body movements, read by the Xbox 360's Kinect motion controller, to control the craft and attempt to land it safely on Mars. "We've tried to simulate that heart-pounding, sweat-dripping seven minutes using Kinect and using users' control of their bodies to get the landing right," Microsoft's Dave McCarthy says.
The Mars rover game simulates the three stages of Curiosity's landing. Upon entering the atmosphere of Mars, the craft is traveling at about 13,000 mph. A supersonic parachute must be properly deployed, and the heat shield, which reaches 3,800 degrees Fahrenheit at its peak, must be jettisoned during the descent.
Then, rocket engines must be deployed prior to the lowering of the tethered Curiosity rover to the surface. After that, the remainder of the craft must be flown away before the rover lands to prevent a dust cloud that could damage it.
"This is one of the most tense and nail-biting periods of time that any of us face because during that time we're waiting to see if all the work that has been put into not only the entry, descent and landing system," Norris says, "but (also) into the vehicle itself pays off and produces for us a healthy rover on the surface of Mars."
In the game, players will use the positioning of their arms, hands and body "to control direction, speed and overall velocity of how the rover is settling down," McCarthy says. "You have got to nail the right pace, the right angle and gently guide it into its soft landing."
Players get scored on how well they complete the three phases. "I would classify it as a gamification of the landing sequence itself," he says.
The Mars rover game is a successor to older spacey video games such as Lunar Lander, the Atari game from the 1970s. "In spirit it has a lot in common with that, but look at how far we've come in the sophistication of the systems necessary to accomplish what we are doing now," he says. "I hope that also comes through to people it is an amazing sequence of events."
Microsoft and the game designers, who had previously designed the Kinect Fun Labs activity package, hope the game exposes "kids of all ages to, frankly, how cool this stuff is in terms of otherworldly exploration and the science behind it," McCarthy says. "It has such a beautiful sort of tension and emotion naturally to it. It is not dry."
And Norris, who played Lunar Lander as a youngster, thinks the Mars Rover Landing game could similarly inspire the next generations of researchers. "I look at the ways that even old arcade games that someone could walk up and in a matter of minutes understand what they are supposed to do and be pretty good at it," he says. "I strive in my own work to build that level of usability in."