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MSL? EDL? A guide to NASA's Mars rover lingo. (+video)

If you plan on watching the scheduled touchdown of NASA's Mars rover on Sunday night, you had better read this so that you'll know what people are talking about.

Team members at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory share the challenges of the Curiosity Mars rover's final minutes to landing on the surface of Mars.
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Fascinated by NASA's latest Mars mission and planning to tune in?

Well, good luck understanding the space agency's everyday lingo, which resembles a sort of Martian alphabet soup.

In the highly specialized world of spacecraft engineering, there are many moving parts and pieces — not to mention processes. Names and descriptions are often reduced to acronyms and abbreviations, which are faster to string together in a sentence but can end up sounding downright alien.

So if you want to know if MSL will nail the EDL and what it can do on different sols, you have to learn the language.

Even speakers acknowledge the jargon is sometimes jarring.

"It's kind of our own slang," explained Michael Watkins, mission manager of NASA's $2.5 billion Mars project set to land on Sunday night. "It's a shorthand way to talk about these very complicated systems."

He added: "Even folks from other missions have no idea what we're talking about."

There's no getting around the reality that NASA scientists and engineers are an acronym-phile bunch.

Let's start with the rover's name. In the halls of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, it's called MSL — short for Mars Science Laboratory. Spacecraft typically have technical names before being rechristened by the public through naming contests sponsored by NASA.

For example: the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity that landed in 2004 were known as MER-A and MER-B for the longest time (MER is shorthand for Mars Exploration Rover.)

MSL did not become Curiosity until 2009 when a sixth-grader from Kansas proposed the nickname. Still, there are some hard-cores who continue to use the scientific moniker.

Curiosity is loaded with the most sophisticated instruments to study Mars' environment — with convoluted names to match. "Mastcam" refers to the pair of 2-megapixel color cameras on the rover's "head." ''SAM" — short for Sample Analysis at Mars — is the mobile chemistry lab designed to sniff for carbon compounds. "ChemCam" stands for Chemistry and Camera, otherwise known as the rock-zapping laser. And "RAD"? That's the radiation detector.

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