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NASA launches ‘Mars Rover Landing’ for Xbox

NASA has revealed a new video game that lets players experience Mars exploration first hand, a first for the U.S. space agency.

The video game, “Mars Rover Landing,” is available for free in the Xbox Live Marketplace and Kinect Central as part of a NASA campaign to involve the public in Mars exploration, according to a statement released by NASA officials. Produced in collaboration with Microsoft, the video game uses the Kinect motion sensor on the Xbox 360 console.

The object of the game is to successfully navigate the seven-minute process of breaking through Mars’ atmosphere, what mission engineers have dubbed “seven minutes of terror,” and delicately land the car-sized rover, what the CS Monitor calls “the centerpiece of NASA’s $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory mission,” on the planet’s surface.

Once players break through the atmosphere, perfect sequencing and timing is required to land Curiosity within narrow spatial constraints. According to NASA, after cruise stage separation, Curiosity will enter Mars’ atmosphere at 13,200 mph (5,900 mps) where it will then have to decelerate to less than 300 mph by deploying a parachute and allowing the radar to detect the landing site.

Once this process is complete, the sky crane can then conduct a powered descent that will slow the vehicle to about 2 mph, gently placing the car-sized rover inside Gale Crater. Curiosity’s main goal while inhabiting the crater will be to identify the ingredients of life, according to a NASA statement.

Currently in transit to the red planet, Curiosity is not only unprecedented in terms of size and weight, but also because it will be one of the most difficult rovers to land. John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate notes that “the Curiosity landing is the hardest NASA robotic mission ever attempted in the exploration of Mars, or any of our robot exploration. This is risky business.”

Doug McCuistion, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, said that the game is a good way to get people involved, saying, “Families can get a taste of the daring that’s involved in this, just landing this mission on the surface. [The game is] going to be very similar to the way the team actually is going to do that.” As part of a concerted effort to excite public interest, the game is the latest in a series of applications and virtual experiences connecting Mars fans with the mission in an attempt to attract funding and promote education.

“Technology is making it possible for the public to participate in exploration as it never has before,” says Michelle Viotti, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Mars public engagement manager. “Because Mars exploration is a fundamentally shared human endeavor, we want everyone around the globe to have the most immersive experience possible.”

While some bloggers were excited about NASA’s foray into the Xbox game market, others were not. “I’m all for using a hobby that kids and adults alike love to introduce them to important, interesting, real-life events. Unfortunately projects like “Mars Rover Landing” seem to forget the fun of games in trying to make something that’s both functional and relevant,” wrote’s Tina Amini.

The video game comes just one week after NASA has stirred up interest in its $2.5-billion Mars mission by releasing a video detailing the final few minutes of the Mars mission. “Seven Minutes of Terror,” (the name of the video) with its thrumming soundtrack and movie-preview aura, could inspire serious doubts in viewers about the mission. With almost a month to go until landing, the video had already been viewed more than half a million times on YouTube alone, and it’s appeared on countless other websites as well.

“We’ve got literally seven minutes to get from the top of the atmosphere to the surface of Mars — going from 13,000 miles an hour to zero, in perfect sequence, perfect choreography, perfect timing,” said Tom Rivellini, a NASA engineer who appears in the video.