In advance of Sunday night's thrilling landing, Curiosity's engineers used the world's most advanced navigational systems and four trajectory correction maneuvers to point the spacecraft toward a narrow patch of Mars' surface. But, at some point, probability takes over: the speed of the martian winds, the exact thrust of the retro-rockets, and the unfurling of the parachute can all nudge the rover a bit one way or another.
Where there's statistical uncertainty, there's room for a sweepstakes. In this spirit, Mars Science Laboratory Project Scientist, John Grotzinger, sponsored "Landing Site Bingo," a pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey style game allowing team members to predict the spot where Curiosity would bump wheels with the martian surface.
A wall-sized printout of the landing site ellipse, with dark swaths of sand dunes and bright expanses of cratered terrain, adorns the hallway. Team members signed their names by their preferred location in black permanent marker. Some took the emotional tack, placing their dot by a favorite geological feature; others were more analytical, using the latest telemetry data to gain an edge.
Breaking news alert: the winner of Landing Site Bingo is - drum roll please - Rob Manning, who just so happens to be JPL's Flight Systems Chief Engineer. The team erupts into suspicious chatter, with accusations of insider mapping.
"It was fixed," claims Grotzinger, "no doubt about it." But, appeals for an ethics review go un-indulged; the real prize, after all, is the knowledge of Curiosity's approximate location and its apparent good health.