Anxiety over rover's Hollywood-style Mars landing

Aug 03, 2012 by ALICIA CHANG
In this Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012 file photo, Adam Steltzner, Mars Science Laboratory's entry, descent and landing phase leader at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, uses a scale model to explain the Curiosity rover's path to the surface during a news conference at the laboratory, in Pasadena, Calif. The rover is headed for a two-year mission to study whether Mars ever had the elements needed for microbial life. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

Seven minutes of terror. It sounds like a Hollywood thriller, but the phrase describes the anxiety NASA is expecting as its car-sized robotic rover tries a tricky landing on Mars late Sunday.

Skimming the top of the at 13,000 mph (21,000 kph), the rover needs to brake to a stop — in seven minutes.

The rover is headed for a two-year mission to study whether Mars ever had the elements needed for microbial life. Because of its heft, the 2,000-pound (900-kilogram) robot can't land the way previous spacecraft did. They relied on air bags to cushion a bouncy touchdown. This time NASA is testing a brand new that involves gingerly setting down the rover similar to the way heavy-lift helicopters lower huge loads at the end of a cable. How hard is it? "The degree of difficulty is above a 10," says Adam Steltzner, an engineer at 's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the mission.

And American University space policy analyst Howard McCurdy says: "It would be a major technological step forward if it works. It's a big gamble."

A communication time delay between Mars and Earth means Curiosity will have to nail the landing by itself, following the half million lines of computer code that engineers uploaded to direct its every move.

After an 8 1/2-month, 352-million-mile (566-million kilometer) journey, here's a step-by-step look at how Curiosity will land:

—Ten minutes before entering the Martian atmosphere, Curiosity separates from the capsule that carried it to Mars.

—Turning its protective heat shield forward, it streaks through the atmosphere at 13,200 mph (21,240 kph), slowing itself with a series of S-curves.

—Seven miles from the ground at 900 mph (482 million Celsius), Curiosity unfurls its enormous parachute.

— Next it sheds its heat shield and turns on radar to scope out the landing site. Now it's 5 miles (8 kilometers) from touchdown and closing in at 280 mph (450 kph).

—A video camera aboard Curiosity starts to record the descent.

—A mile from landing, the parachute is jettisoned.

—Curiosity is still attached to a rocket-powered backpack, and those rockets are used to slow it to less than 2 mph (3.2 kph).

—Twelve seconds before landing, nylon cables release and lower Curiosity. Once it senses six wheels on the ground, it cuts the cords. The hovering rocket-powered backpack flies out of the way and crashes some distance away.

Explore further: New commercial rocket descent data may help NASA with future Mars landings

5 /5 (2 votes)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

NASA's newest Mars rover faces a tricky landing

Jul 30, 2012

It's the U.S. space agency's most ambitious and expensive Mars mission yet — and it begins with the red planet arrival Sunday of the smartest interplanetary rover ever built.

Recommended for you

Heavy metal frost? A new look at a Venusian mystery

11 hours ago

Venus is hiding something beneath its brilliant shroud of clouds: a first order mystery about the planet that researchers may be a little closer to solving because of a new re-analysis of twenty-year-old ...

Hot explosions on the cool sun

17 hours ago

(Phys.org) —The Sun is more spirited than previously thought. Apart from the solar eruptions, huge bursts of particles and radiation from the outer atmosphere of our star, also the cooler layer right below ...

Europe secures new generation of weather satellites

18 hours ago

Contracts were signed today to build three pairs of MetOp Second Generation satellites, ensuring the continuity of essential information for global weather forecasting and climate monitoring for decades to ...

User comments : 0